The Baltimore Orioles have been one of the surprise teams in baseball and they continue to remake their roster even during the heat of a pennant race. Buck Showalter needed a third baseman last month with Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit struggling, so he called upon Baltimore’s top prospect, a 20-year-old shortstop in Double-A by the name of Manny Machado. It wasn’t as if Machado had been raking in the minor leagues, either, and he had virtually no experience at third, but the move has been an unequivocal success for the Orioles.
Machado seems likely to have seen his last days in the minor leagues, given how well he has represented himself as a major league regular at such a tender age. It would seem that the O’s would probably like to allow Machado to play his natural position next season. The problem there is that veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy is signed through 2014 at $7 million per year.
As Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun notes, it’s a question that has crossed Hardy’s mind as well.
“Does it cross my mind? Yeah. I’m not going to lie. I was in the same situation in Milwaukee with Alcides Escobar coming up. I don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s 20 years old. He is going to be really big. He’s doing a great job at third base right now, so I feel like all I need to worry about is playing shortstop as good as I can and things will take care of themselves.”
There certainly is the possibility that Machado will stay at third base. As Hardy noted, Machado is a big boy, listed at 6’3″ and 185 lbs but he sure looks more sturdy than that. Machado has played well at the hot corner and his bat will play as a corner infielder as well. If the O’s choose to go that route, they can rest easy knowing that defensively, they will be all set on the left side of the infield for a couple more years.
But Hardy is struggling at the plate this season, especially when compared to the numbers he compiled in 2011, and the O’s might feel like the time is now to trade away their shortstop in hopes of landing an arm or two. But would selling low be a good idea with Hardy? The Twins thought it was two years ago and Hardy rebounded with a 30 home run campaign last season. Unfortunately, in virtually the same number of plate appearances this year, Hardy’s extra base hits have fallen from 57 to 40, his slugging percentage has dropped from .491 to a mere .381. So what has happened to the pop that seems to have disappeared?
Looking at his peripherals, Hardy is actually improved his walk rate in 2012 and lowered his strikeout rate, so he’s seeing the ball well enough. His line drive rate is also up from last year, so he’s making better contact when he connects. His fly ball rate is down a bit, as you would expect with an elevated line drive rate. Those things usually add up to a solid season at the dish; not a .231/.277/.381 line.
Hardy’s never been a hitter with a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), coming in .274 over his eight big league seasons. Last season, his BABIP was .273, almost exactly his career average, and he turning in an .800 OPS season. This year, with peripherals that would suggest success, his OPS is hovering around .650 and the major culprit may very well be his .245 BABIP.
Hardy is still an outstanding defender at short and it seems he’s due to rebound next season at the dish and probably come a bit closer to the offensive numbers he offered in 2011, when he was worth 4.8 WAR according to fangraphs. That kind of player is a steal at $7 million per year. Heck, his defensive value alone makes that salary almost palatable.
GM Dan Duquette will field the phone calls and I’m sure there will be at least a couple clubs calling on Hardy this Fall (the Tigers, Giants, and Pirates immediately come to mind). Baltimore is in the market for pitching, you would have to assume, and Hardy could fetch a major-league ready starter, though probably not a top-tier prospect.
When you combine his struggles at the plate this season with Machado’s presence on the roster, leverage will be something Duquette will struggle to gain in trade talks. Real or imaginary, the perception will be that Baltimore has to trade Hardy.
The easy decision would be to deal Hardy for a diminished return and slide Machado over to short. After all, he has always been the club’s shortstop of the future and Hardy was always just keeping this spot warm for him. The longer he plays third, the harder it will be to move him back to short, especially as his body continues to fill out.
But the easy decision isn’t necessarily the right one for the immediate future of the Orioles. Baltimore is a better club with Hardy and Machado in the lineup together than with Machado playing alongside any of the other options employed by the O’s this season at third. That Machado was called up when he was should be all the evidence of that one would need.
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