Heath Bintliff: Time to lock up J.J. Hardy

Yesterday we talked about the current season. Today, let’s talk about the future.

The Orioles need to lock up J.J. Hardy. And they need to do it now.

Remember how desolate the prospects at shortstop looked for the Orioles this past offseason? Internally, we were looking at Robert Andino and that’s about it. In the free agent market, there were retreads like Jerry Hairston Jr., Juan Uribe and Miguel Tejada. We were going to have to choose between either a good glove or a good bat. But there was a good chance the team was likely to just get a bad player all around.

But after a near miss where the team nearly traded Nolan Reimold and Alfredo Simon to Tampa for Jason Barlett (who currently has an OPS of just .648 for the Padres and is not fielding well either), the O’s were able to pull off a trade with Minnesota for Hardy for a couple of minor league relievers and he has filled a gaping hole for the team. He is not an elite player but he is a very good fielder (every bit as good as Izturis by most measures) and he could actually handle himself with the bat.

No, he is not perfect. His hitting and health had taken a hit over the last couple seasons but he was a good bet to be close to a league average hitter who could play a premium defensive position and play it well. That is a rare commodity in today’s game.

The injury bug has already bitten him and he missed a month while on the DL. But while he’s been on the field, he’s been a pretty amazing offensive force. His .857 OPS trails only Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera among regular shortstops, and in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating, he is a much better fielder. Buck Showalter struggled to find a competent leadoff hitter when Brian Roberts went down with an injury but Hardy has filled that gap admirably lately, with an OPS of 1.201 in the 5 games that he has led off in.

But looking to the coming offseason, the shortstop prospects are still pretty grim. Andino is a fine utility player but would be exposed as a starter. The free agent market is full of “good glove, no bat” guys like Yuniesky Betancourt, Ronny Cedeno and Jack Wilson. Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes come with a ton of questions marks and will take a ton of money to sign.

So while you have his ear, see if you can lock up Hardy to a three-year deal.

Just blow him away with an offer. $8-10 million per year over the next three seasons should look pretty good to the guy. Does this seem like a lot of money to give to an injury prone guy? Yes. But he is a rare player these days, a shortstop who can legitimately field and hit.

I mean, if you can throw around $6 million a season to a guy like Mike Gonzalez or $10 million to a Kevin Gregg, does it really seem so risky? I think we can find relievers much easier than solid starting shortstops.

Top prospect Manny Machado is at least two years away. Let’s see if we can bridge that gap with Hardy. Now.

Heath Bintliff blogs about the Orioles at Dempsey’s Army. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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