We will be running through all of the possible ticket items that the Orioles have to give away and receive something useful in return. The first for us to highlight, before he is signed to an extension, is J.J. Hardy.
.356 wOBA, 275/333/490, 1.8 fWAR
Case to Keep
Ever since Miguel Tejada began rapidly aging, shortstop has been a black hole of offense for the Orioles. Internal options never emerged, no one ever really trades a useful shortstop prospect, and free agency rarely yields good talent at that position. Shortstops are hoarded and locked up by their teams. However, the Twins were in a cash crunch and had doubts about J.J. Hardy. He provided excellent defense, but is the epitome of "injury-prone" and showed an anemic bat two years running. The Orioles jumped on Hardy and merely had to pay his salary (5.85 MM) and give up two somewhat inconsequential players (Jim Hoey with his blazing straight fastball and Aubrey Huff acquisition Brett Jacobson).
This year the Orioles are benefiting from Hardy's best offensive season of his career by rate. The only mark on him so far has been that he has missed roughly 25 games to injury. That is better attendance than his previous two years. His defense has also shined and is just as good as our all glove shortstop Cesar Izturis. The simple truth is that shortstop has been a great year for this team. Even with Andino filling in for Hardy on several occasions, the Orioles ranked as the 10th most productive team at shortstop. Last year, the team was 27th. Of all of the troubles the Orioles have faced this season, shortstop has not been one of them and at 28, Hardy certainly has several years left in him.
Case to Trade
There are three major reasons to trade Hardy: he is injury-prone, he is having a career year, and you probably can trade him for useful prospects.
Injury prone. In 2009, he barely played 100 games. The same thing was true in 2010. He, again, this year missed a quarter of the first half with an injury. While it is true that none of these injuries were career threatening, the possibility lies that a future injury certainly could be career threatening. This is probably more of a concern for a shortstop because even little dings here and there can turn into decreased ability to play third base effectively. Injuries during his 2009 and 2010 campaigns likely had a lot to do with his issues at the plate. Hardy's power evaporated those two years and injuries probably have some bearing on that. If the three year extension does go through, I think it will be safe to say that Hardy will likely play 3B in 2014 with Manny Machado at shortstop. If Machado rushes up for 2013, Hardy might make the switch earlier. At 28, Hardy is at the point where players tend to slow down.
Career Year. I am surprised by the 21-25 MM numbers being thrown about because J.J. Hardy is having a career year. That is most assuredly a discount, if Hardy hits the open market...he will receive three or four years at 10+ MM. The only way 21-25 MM makes sense to me would be if there are sizable incentives in there and a concrete no trade clause that could later turn into more money for him. The shortstop market is incredibly thin in the upcoming year and you have several big money teams (e.g. San Francisco Giants) who will be looking to resolve issues they have at this position. Jose Reyes might be the best option for shortstop this off season, but after Hardy there is nothing left at the position. My guess for his value if he hit the market would be 3/36 or 4/44. Teams close to the playoffs and in need of help will and should be willing to put up with the premium that is a career season and be tolerant of his injury issues. The Orioles with holes a plenty, have little use for a shortstop going into his thirties with a dicey injury history.
Trade return. Several teams are also struggling in season for an answer at shortstop. This translates into teams being willing to give up prospects who are blocked within the team's playoff window or players in the low minors. Trading Hardy and then overpaying him by several million may actually be cheaper than signing Hardy and then signing a free agent at a position. The easiest scenario here would be the Reds where the Orioles could deal him for Yonder Alonso (1B) and then resign Hardy at 13-15MM a year for three years. That would be cheaper and likely more useful than resigning Hardy and then signing Prince Fielder to a 150-200MM contract. The point is that this team, the Orioles, is not a playoff team in the near term. It is difficult to see how this organization can field a competitive squad in the next three years. As such, a Hardy extension makes as much sense as Brian Roberts extension did. Just because you are left with a hole does not mean you should spend whatever it takes to fill it because your yard may be full of holes.
Possible Trade Partners and Targets
The following teams are those who are having troubles with production from their shortstop position. Most of these teams are producing wOBAs around .305 or less and the team is within striking distance of the divisional pennant.
Tampa Bay Rays
To be kind, shortstop is killing the Rays. They are getting decent defense there, but Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson are providing next to nothing at the plate. The Rays could certainly use a short term fix and would make good use of any compensation picks Hardy would provide. However, the Rays never just look at the current season and would be unlikely to drop a major piece to the Orioles, so nothing like Desmond Jennings. What the team could expect would be a couple low B prospects or a low B and a soon to be expensive starting pitcher. In the former scenario, I am thinking a tandem to target would be Nick Barnese (RHP) and Braulio Lara (LHP). In the Rays' system those guys are probably in the 10-15 tange for their prospects. In ours, they would be in the 3-7 range. That said, only Barnese would be consequential for next season. Something that might be more relevant for the near term would be pairing Barnese up with Jeff Niemann (RHP). The Rays probably do not want him much long with the arms they have pushing up from AAA and with his arbitration figures coming in. He is also their back end rotation arm. He would be something similar for the Orioles. Either trade scenario probably is not ideal for the Orioles.
Money will be tight for the Braves, but Alex Gonzalez is providing nothing at the plate for them. Gonzalez has about 1.2 MM left on his deal this year. I could see the Braves asking the Orioles to take Gonzalez back in the deal and maybe even through in a million or two with Hardy. Similar to the Rays, I do not see anything of immediate need available in the Braves' system. My target here would be Arodys Vizcaino (RHP). He has a great arm, but his durability has been questioned. As such, you will see him ranked anywhere from top 15 to top 50 when the off season prospect rankings emerge. Getting an arm like that means you threw money in there and a second piece is likely to be a bit fringe because no one likes giving up that kind of arm. A player who fits that bill would be someone like Todd Cunningham (CF). He covers the plate well with good discipline and plays good defense. His power though is a bit unimpressive. He is likely to be a 4th outfielder. That said, Vizcaino would be a huge piece to have in the Orioles system and I think the Braves would be more willing to give value than the Rays.
The Brewers made a big splash acquiring KRod. However, they still have an issue at shortstop. Ex-Brewer Hardy may not be an option the team wants as there may be bad blood between the two. The Brewers notoriously dropped Hardy into the minors to add a year service time onto his contract preventing him from reaching free agency in 2011, which is why Hardy is an Oriole right now. The Brewers system is also void of much talent after the Grienke trade this past off season. I would not bother entering talks with them. If I had to deal with them, I'd settle for nothing less than three of their top four or five arms...something like Heckathorn, Scarpetta, and Thornburg...it might be better just to take the draft picks for Hardy.
The Pirates do not have much money to throw around and I could see the Orioles being able to leverage that by offering to pay for Hardy's deal. The two draft picks for Hardy would also look good to the Pirates who would not have to worry about him taking arbitration. With that in mind, I would ask for two potentially big pieces: Starling Marte (CF), Rudy Owens (LHP), and Colton Cain (LHP). Marte could spell Adam Jones in centerfield in a couple years allowing Jones to shift to a more natural left field or for the Orioles to deal him. Owens looks like a promising lefty who has struggled this past year in AAA. At the very least, he is more valuable fodder than Troy Patton or Jim Johnson in the rotation. Colton Cain would be the Chris Tillman circa Erik Bedard deal. Cain is young with a ton of projection, but I think he could be a top 50 guy in a year. Again, this is another forward thinking deal. Not many opportunities available for the here and now.
In the second post today, I will focus on two more likely destinations: the Cincinatti Reds and the San Francisco Giants. I count these as more likely because (1) their shortstops are awful and (2) they have pieces the Orioles could use right now.