Pending J.J. Hardy passing his physical, the Orioles have signed their shortstop to a three-year contract extension for $22 million. Since it reportedly includes a limited no-trade clause, the deal likely takes Hardy's name out of the trade deadline rumor mill.
Was it a good deal? Hardy turns 29 in August and the deal takes him through 2014. The Orioles have Manny Machado in the minors, a player Keith Law just ranked as the No. 5 prospect in baseball, so the timetable sets up perfectly. If Machado advances quickly, Hardy could slide to another position or become trade bait.
Anyway, the deal is risky for several reasons:
1. Hardy is in the midst of his best season. After good seasons with the Brewers in 2007 and 2008 -- in which he hit 50 home runs -- he struggled in 2009 (.229) and didn't hit for much power with the Twins last season. That means his projected level of play is too difficult to predict. He looks great right now and considering the lack of quality shortstops in the majors, he's been one of the better ones in 2011. But is it merely a good two-month streak or just a guy who's finally healthy?
2. His injury history. He hasn't played 140 games since 2008 and won't again this year -- he's already missed 27 games earlier with an oblique strain, after missing more than 100 games combined in 2009-10.
3. How will he age? While he's not fast, Hardy has played a good shortstop throughout his career. He should remain good enough with the glove for three more years.
All in all, it seems like a good deal for the Orioles, assuming Hardy stays reasonably healthy. The Orioles are never going to be the first choice for top free agents, so they have to build from within and hope they can sign second-line players like Hardy to long-term contracts that don't break the payroll. Trading Hardy also would have left a huge gap at shortstop that would have been difficult to fill.
It should also be noted that the Orioles are finally starting to clear out from the bad contracts they consistently handed out over the past decade. Besides Hardy, only four other players are locked up long-term: Nick Markakis (about $43 million from 2012-14); Brian Roberts ($10 million in 2012 and 2013); Mark Reynolds ($7.8 million in 2012); and Kevin Gregg ($5.8 million in 2012). None of those are good deals for the Orioles, especially considering Markakis' decline (although he's been red hot the past month or so) and Roberts' inability to remain healthy, but they're not necessarily crippling. Luke Scott and Jeremy Guthrie are free agents after 2012; if the Orioles can turn those two into younger assets at the trade deadline or in the offseason, it could be another boon to give them more payroll flexibility as they build around their young rotation.