SARASOTA, FLA. — J.J. Hardy pondered the hypothetical question longer than most professional athletes might.
If he had not spent most of the 2014 season trying to play through a painful back injury that forced him to alter his swing and trade power for playing time, would he have bypassed free agency for the three-year, $40 million contract he signed right in the middle of the Orioles' postseason run?
"You never know,'' Hardy said on Saturday. "I don't know the answer to that. It might have made things different. You look at the year before at the qualifying offer and what it did to Stephen Drew. That was something that was going through my head. I can't say that it didn't."
Drew was one of the players who were left dangling at the end of the offseason last year. He turned down the qualifying offer — determined by averaging the top 125 player salaries from the previous year — from the Boston Red Sox and then sat out until late May before accepting a prorated version of that contract to rejoin them. Hardy pointed to Drew's situation because they play the same position, but the same kind of thing led to Nelson Cruz signing a cheap one-year deal with the Orioles last spring.
"So, yeah, there are so many things that are unknown,'' Hardy said. "And now, having seen the way the offseason went, who knows what would have happened. It didn't seem like the qualifying offer affected as many people this offseason as the one before."
Don't misunderstand. Hardy isn't looking back wistfully. He's very happy to be here and he's glad he signed the extension. It removed any doubt about his future and kept him in the place — and the comfort zone — he wanted to be in all along.
There's just a certain irony attached to the likelihood that the injury that took down his power numbers might have created the opportunity to get a long-term extension done at what was a very curious time.
The Orioles announced the contract in between the club's American League Division Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers and the start of the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. Maybe the club was just taking advantage of what it perceived to be a stronger bargaining position because of Hardy's uncharacteristic power numbers, or maybe team officials took seriously the speculation that Hardy might be a logical replacement for retiring New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
Instead of sweating out the free agent market, all Hardy had to worry about after that was a new offseason workout regimen that put greater emphasis on strengthening his core. He says his back feels fine now and he hopes to be a bigger part of another six-month Orioles home run derby this year.
For all the good things that happened to him and the team in 2014, Hardy is happy to put it behind him.
"Yeah, last year was a weird year, with not knowing what was going to happen … thinking maybe it would be my last year here,'' he said. "I dealt with my back issues pretty much the whole year. I think it went out the first week of the season and never felt good again until sometime in the middle of the season for maybe a month. Then it came around again towards the end of the season. It was a constant battle just to stay on the field. I feel like I did everything I could do. I definitely didn't feel like I could drive the ball the way my back was."
That was fairly obvious. Hardy averaged 26 home runs per year in his first three seasons as an Oriole and won the Silver Slugger award at shortstop after hitting 25 homers and driving in 76 runs in 2013. He did not hit his first home run last year until June 21 and did not hit a homer in September.
"I think I hit all my home runs in a two-month span when my back felt okay and towards the end it started doing it (hurting) again and I went back to just trying to put the ball in play and doing anything I could to help the team," he said.
Hardy has won three straight Gold Gloves and would be one of the most valuable players on the team even if he didn't hit for any power, but manager Buck Showalter and the front office want to give him every opportunity to reclaim the power swing that made him one of the premier offensive shortstops in the game.
That's one of the reasons the club signed speedy shortstop Everth Cabrera last week. He won't challenge Hardy for playing time, but — if all goes well this spring — he will make it easier for Showalter to give Hardy more regular days off.
Hardy hopes he won't need them, but he recognizes the team has to be prepared for any eventuality.
"It's not in my DNA, but if that's what they are thinking I totally understand,'' he said. "The last thing I want to do is have any more back problems and I think that's the last thing they want, too. Like I said, I've been doing a ton of core and my back feels normal. If I can continue doing that and my back feels normal, I want to play 162."