Three weeks ago when I started to write this post, the idea of J.J. Hardy succumbing to an injury was something projected and apparently misdirected. The concern I have held since last September focused on Hardy's torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. The injury hampered him at the plate last year, resulting in an average exit velocity of 88 mph. That drop was in part due to reduced strength, but also in changed mechanics. The pain was severe enough that Hardy drastically shortened his stroke and relied more on his throwing shoulder and forearms to decelerate the bat as opposed to his lead shoulder.
This past offseason, Hardy increased his weight lifting to strengthen the muscles around his labrum. Surgery on a second labrum tear has a rather poor prognosis and Hardy, at this stage in his career and having experienced a labrum surgery in his younger days, did not desire to go under the knife. Therefore, the approach was to leave the torn labrum as is and let the muscles provide the stability. In response, his exit velocity has popped up to around 96-98 mph.
The hope was that with a stronger shoulder that Hardy would revert back to his 20 home run days. Earlier this season, a few writers bathed in the wonder of Hardy's two home run night in Boston. Perusing the box score, that looked like a marvelous step back in time for Hardy. However, if you actually watched the game, then you saw both home runs were squeakers around the Pesky Pole and likely would have been outs or, optimistically, doubles in other parks. That said, the strengthened shoulder has appeared to improve Hardy's ability to hit doubles and right now he is performing as a league average shortstop at the plate (244/291/410, .302 wOBA, 0.5 fWAR). Add that to his solid play at short and you have a fringe All Star level of play.
However, Hardy is now injured. No, it is not his shoulder, which admittedly could go at any moment. He broke his foot with a time table ranging from four to eight weeks. Unfortunately for the Orioles, whose farm system has largely been neglected over the years, there is no immediate replacement. This is not uncommon though. Few teams have the ability to readily replace any player who goes down at any position. What is particularly tough is that the Orioles should be one of those clubs. Their infield is effectively Leftover Salmon. Between songs, the Orioles starters can exchange instruments. Schoop can arguably play second, short, or third. Machado is a world class third baseman with a glove and a lesser star at shortstop. All the club needs is a useful second baseman, shortstop, or third baseman and the world will continue to spin.
What the club has are broken veteran toys. Some talk places Pedro Alvarez or Chris Davis at third base. This should immediately be seen as a horrific mistake. To walk through this, let us establish a few facts. One, Alvarez was so poor at playing third base for the Pirates that he was pressed into service at first base and then sparingly used when he failed at that. He would be replacement level at best. That would cost the club between one and two games in comparison to what Hardy provided. It is hard to imagine Davis being much better. His significantly better bat would likely be cancelled out by an even worse ability to handle third base. All of this would create an awful sort of synergy when paired with the current crop of Orioles' left fielders. Missed balls at third will be doubles instead of outs.
Options not yet on the club include Ryan Flaherty and Jimmy Paredes. Paredes will make people pine for Wilson Betemit. Flaherty can replace Hardy's bat, but his adequate glove is a fall from Hardy's. Paul Janish is another possibility out there. Janish may be the best defensive shortstop in Orioles system, but you would not be able to tell from a stat line whether he was in the batter's box or if the pitcher pitched to no one.
There is nothing else left. In the end, a loss of maybe a win or two does not seem like much. One might also consider that this club was projected as a fringe playoff team. That Gallardo has been a mess and that the club has holes in the corner outfield in terms of defense. That makes a couple wins potentially quite meaningful when one looks forward to the playoffs. It also makes one quite thankful for the Orioles season opening winning streak.
So much depends on a J.J. Hardy
Glistening with Sweat
Between two white bases