With the departures of Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, and Andrew Miller, it’s easy to forget the one who didn’t get away from the Orioles this winter.
On the eve of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, shortstop J.J. Hardy signed a three-year, $40 million contract extension to remain in Baltimore where he’s won three Gold Gloves and been one of the best offensive players at his position in the majors. The 32-year-old acknowledged Saturday that he was relieved not having to go through what his former teammates experienced this offseason before signing elsewhere.
“It’s nice to know that I’m going to be here for a few more years,” said Hardy, whose three-year, $21 million signed in 2011 expired at the end of the 2014 campaign. “It’s just nice having it over with. It really wasn’t a great or fun process to do it, but once it was done, I’m happy it’s over with.”
The biggest question for Hardy will now be how well he bounces back from a down year offensively in which he hit only nine home runs — his lowest total since 2010 — and posted a .372 slugging percentage. Much of Hardy’s lack of power has been attributed to a lingering back injury that initially surfaced during the first week of the regular season.
The 2013 All-Star selection missed a week of action in early April and managed the injury for much of the season before it again flared up in September. Magnetic resonance imaging exams revealed no structural damage at either point, but Hardy received a cortisone shot to help with the pain as the Orioles narrowed in on the American League East title in mid-September.
Back issues are always concerning — especially for a middle infielder on the wrong side of 30 — but Hardy took advantage of the offseason to rest and put in the necessary work in hopes of avoiding problems this coming season. After posting a .436 OPS with no homers in the month of September, the veteran batted .240 with one home run and three runs batted in in 25 postseason at-bats.
“It happened so early last year that it was just a constant battle to get my core strong enough to where I didn’t feel it,” Hardy said. “I felt like maybe two months out of the year I actually felt normal. The rest of the time was a grind. I’ve been able to strengthen my core pretty good this offseason with my workouts. Hopefully, that holds up.”
The Orioles will certainly hope for more from Hardy offensively than a year ago, but his biggest value lies with his defense as he’s collected three consecutive Gold Glove awards, becoming the second shortstop in club history to win three in a row. The late Mark Belanger won six straight from 1973 through 1978.