Mere hours prior to the beginning of the American League Championship Series, the Baltimore Orioles began what is expected to be an active offseason by re-signing shortstop J.J. Hardy to a 3-year contract extension worth a guaranteed $40 million dollars, although $6.5 million is in deferred money. Hardy also receives a fourth year vesting contract option contingent upon plate appearances. This contract nearly guarantees that the 32-year-old Hardy spends the rest of his career in Baltimore.
Hardy is coming off a slightly disappointing offensive season in 2014, hitting .268/.309/.372 with only 9 home runs, after 3 consecutive seasons of slugging 20+ home runs. Hardy saw a sharp increase in his strikeout ratio (18.3% vs. 14.6% career) and his isolated power drastically drop this season (.104 vs. .161 career) – these numbers could foreshadow a continued future decline in offensive production. A two-time all-star, Hardy has a .261/.309/.422 batting line for his 10-year major league career. For reference, the league average batting line in 2014 for a shortstop was .251/.306/.363, meaning Hardy is still an average or slightly above-average offensive shortstop.
However, Hardy’s reputation is built with the leather, as he is one of the best defensive players in baseball and the Orioles are spending considerable money to keep his glove in Baltimore. Depending on which of the defensive metrics available one uses, or just the simple eye test, Hardy is easily one of the best 5 shortstops in baseball, ranking only behind the otherworldly Andrelton Simmons. This stellar defense has allowed him to be worth 4.3, 2.7, 3.4, and 3.4 WAR the past 4 seasons as a member of the Orioles. (Fangraphs.com)
This extension resolves one of the biggest questions surrounding the Orioles’ offseason, as now Hardy can be penciled in as the team’s shortstop for the next 3+ seasons, flanked by budding stars Manny Machado at third base and Jonathan Schoop at the keystone. In addition, Baltimore’s farm system has a dearth of impact middle infield prospects and this signing resolves this organizational weakness for the near future.
Assuming some natural regression in his performance as he ages and reasonable health the next three years, one should project Hardy to be worth between 6.5 – 8.5 WAR over the course of the contract. With the current going rate being approximately $6.5-$7 million per win in free agency, the pact seems like a solid deal for both sides, as Hardy receives a guaranteed contract through age-35, and the Orioles resolve their biggest offseason issue prior to the World Series at near or below market rate.
Considering the number of teams seeking middle infielders this winter, in particular the New York Yankees, most expected Hardy to begin negotiations with Jhonny Peralta’s 4-year $53 million contract he signed last offseason. Certainly this extension has risk involved for Baltimore due to Hardy’s age, mediocre offensive season in 2014, and past injury issues, but Hardy’s value with the glove, coupled with his offensive aptitude, would have made him extraordinarily difficult for the Orioles to replace within their payroll structure this offseason. Furthermore, I believe when we look back at the deals signed by comparable middle infielders such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, and Jed Lowrie this winter, Hardy’s will look like a relative bargain. While not a John Stockton-like steal, the Orioles did well to secure J.J. Hardy before the beginning of free agency at this price.