As Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette met with the beat crew Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, a variety of questions fielded inside the Rays public relations office in the back of the press box, he broke away from a particular topic to pay tribute to two pending free agents.
Two players who have been instrumental in the franchise’s climb from 14 consecutive losing seasons to three playoff appearances in six years.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy knows that the Orioles aren’t picking up his $14 million option, which failed to vest after he fell short of the required plate appearances over the last two summers. He isn’t ready for retirement, but also isn’t sure what constitutes the right fit for him at this stage of his career.
No one is ruling out a return to the Orioles, but it seems highly unlikely with Tim Beckham on the roster. Hardy isn’t a utility player. He’s only been a shortstop in 13 major league seasons. And he isn’t going to settle for a situation where he might get on the field once a week.
He shouldn’t have to do it. Someone will want him to play shortstop.
“I do want to mention that J.J. Hardy had some great years with the Orioles,” Duquette said. “Silver Slugger, All-Star, Gold Gloves and a 30-home run season (in 2011). He made a terrific contribution. He was on the playoff teams for the last couple of seasons and that was a terrific sendoff that he gave the fans last week. I was really happy for him.”
Hardy’s farewell on Sept. 24 will go down as one of the highlights of a disappointing season. It should make any list of favorite moments at Camden Yards. We’re not talking 2,131, but it was special.
The prolonged ovation before his first at-bat, players in both dugouts applauding him. The home run off Chris Archer in the fourth inning, followed by the rare curtain call.
“He hit that ball out,” Duquette said. “According to Statcast, it was the hardest ball he’s hit in like three years. To see the smile on his face and the gratitude of our fans, I mean, that was really heartwarming.
“That was a great story. I was happy for J.J.”
It’s unfortunate that Chris Tillman, the emergency starter that day after Dylan Bundy was scratched, didn’t get the same reception. He allowed four runs and six hits in four innings, including two homers, and heard a smattering of boos.
Tillman was never right in 2017, the carryover from a difficult winter that included a platelet-rich plasma injection in his shoulder in December. He didn’t make his first start until May 7, the only game he won.
If Tillman’s relief appearance Friday night at Tropicana Field marked the end of his Orioles career, he needs to be remembered for a lot more than how it played out this summer.
The opening day starter for three consecutive years, Tillman might have to sign for one season and take another stab at free agency. The Orioles are a possibility for a pillow contract, as it’s called in the industry.
Could Tillman get more than one year? If not, would he want to stay in the American League East and continue to pitch at hitter-happy Camden Yards?
“Chris Tillman has had five good years here with the Orioles and I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but this is a kid who won 16 games, was on all our playoff teams,” Duquette said. “He deserves a lot of accolades for his contributions to the team over the last couple of years.
“Those guys are stand-up guys who were core players on our team.”