Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/7/12

The Orioles had the highlight of the weekend. No, not Chris Davis pitching, but this:

[Not sure where this originated, but I discovered it via Ryan Hudson]

The Orioles should be feeling really good. Prior to the season the usual trio of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays were considered the contenders for the American League East, with the Blue Jays perhaps as the upcoming outsider. Baltimore was understandably thought of as being, well, a terrible team looking at an ugly season as they start a long rebuilding process. As of this writing, the Orioles are all alone atop the toughest division in baseball, one-half game ahead of Tampa Bay.

[awkward fist pump]

I doubt all but the most devout Orioles believers think this will last, but it is a nice place to be. However, it does raise questions of if and when the Orioles should start to shop some of their attractive pieces for prospects that might be around for the next potential contender in Baltimore. For today’s case in point, let’s look at shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Hardy might seem like a weird choice to some, given that he is not one of the Orioles off to a hot start — when one thinks of the Orioles’ jump to first, one thinks of the three hitters all over a .400 wOBA on the season so far: Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Nolan Reimold. After his 30 home run “comeback” season in 2011, Hardy is off to something of a tepid start in 2012, sporting just a .298 wOBA so far.

However, .298 is not as bad as it might seem given the league run environment and that Hardy plays shortstop. Moreover (wait for it…), it is a small sample so far. Hardy’s peripheral indicators are pretty much the same as always: below average walk rate, above-average contact, and good power. Hardy is generally a low BABIP hitter, but a .202 is low even for him — regression to something around .270 is likely. ZiPS ROS projects Hardy as a .324 wOBA hitter for the rest of the season, which is above average overall in this run environment, and very good for a shortstop.

Defensive metrics generally see Hardy as an above-average fielder at his position, but even if you do not buy that, he’s probably at least average. Hardy gets hurt often, but even at, say, 110 games a season, he’s probably almost a three win player. That is quite valuable at the $7 million a year he is guaranteed through 2014.

I was recently asked if Hardy should be moved to third or traded when stud prospect Manny Machado is ready. Leaving aside the question of whether Machado will “outgrow” shortstop and end up needing to move to third, my initial response was that the Orioles are far enough away from contention that they should not be basing their thought process regarding Hardy on Machado’s own timetable. The sooner they trade Hardy (given the right partner, of course), the more they can get back for him in young talent that can play beside Machado when it actually matters. Hardy has almost three full years left on a team-friendly contract, and while he will still have good surplus value next summer, this summer (assuming he’s healthy), if the right trade partner needs a shortstop, Hardy could potentially bring back one more prospect, or one of the pieces could be a notch higher than the summer of 2013.

That is not to say that the Orioles should be looking to “dump” Hardy as soon as they can. The team should simply be open to trading him for younger talent if the opportunity arises, even if it is already this summer. There would be some short-term suffering if there is not a good replacement ready (Machado is highly unlikely to be up before 2013, and even then it might not be until September), but the long-term benefits would make it worth it.

However, it is easy for me to play armchair GM. However ephemeral it is, the Orioles are on a nice hot streak at the moment. The team has squandered a huge portion of local goodwill over the past decade, and with the Nationals seemingly on the rise, they might be cautious about giving the appearance of “giving up” while they still seem competitive, at least to the casual fan. I am not sure how I would quantify it, but I agree that there is a non-zero value to not putting replacement-level players on the field, even if the team is not a realistic contender.

What does this mean for properly “timing” a Hardy trade? I do not know. Honestly, I still tend to think the team should bite the bullet in terms of short-term discomfort and publicity if a good trade opportunity comes up for Hardy prior to Machado being ready. Yes, Hardy is one of their better players, and it would be painful to see him go. But being a good player on a team-friendly contract also means that Hardy is an excellent trade chip.

I believe it was Branch Rickey who used to say something to the effect that it is better to trade a player a year early than a year late (insert Twins/Hardy joke here). The sooner they Orioles are willing to listen on Hardy, the more likely they are to get good value in return. However, given the hot start the Orioles have enjoyed so far, the the impulse to hold off is understandable.


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