TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04: J.J. Hardy #2 of the Baltimore Orioles reacts after striking out in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the American League Wild Card game at Rogers Centre on October 4, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

It did not even take a full squad workout to prevent Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy from being able to participate.

Orioles Need To Be Cautious With J.J. Hardy

The 34-year-old shortstop will be out of action “until at least early March” with back spasms that have been lingering for a few weeks. Hardy initially tweaked his back three weeks ago before the “Orioles FanFest” event in Baltimore. He was hoping that the spasms would stop by the time spring training began, but that does not appear to be the case. Now, the Orioles are keeping Hardy on the shelf until he feels ready to come back from this latest injury to his back.

Hardy has dealt with back problems for a few years now. In 2014, Hardy suffered spasms at the beginning of the season. He was able to avoid the disabled list, but he dealt with severe back pain for the rest of the season. According to Hardy, last year was the first offseason in which he has not had any back concerns. The fact that they are happening again is a red flag, and the Orioles cannot rush Hardy back.

Hardy has been a valuable asset for the Orioles for a long time. Since coming to Baltimore after the 2010 season, he made it to the All Star Game and won three Gold Gloves. In his six Orioles seasons, he has 799 hits and 103 home runs. Not only that, but he has acted as the veteran role model for Baltimore’s young infielders – Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. Machado and Schoop are incredible young players, but Hardy’s tutelage has served them well since coming up from the minor leagues.

With all of that being said, it is no secret that father time is undefeated. In 2014, the year that Hardy dealt with back pain all season, he hit just nine home runs, the first time he hit under 10 with the Orioles. In 2015, Hardy missed the first month of the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He finished that season with a .219 average with just eight home runs. In a game on May 1 last season, he fouled a ball off his foot and suffered a hairline fracture, which caused him to miss a chunk of the season for the second year in row. Hardy’s bat was better in 2016, as he slashed .269/.309/.407, but once again he finished with under 10 homers (9).

Hardy is still capable of producing solid at-bats, but the power is clearly gone and he should be no higher than eighth in the lineup. When healthy, he is still the clear-cut leader of Baltimore’s infield, but his body has been wearing down for the past three seasons. It would be acceptable to assume that this could be his last season before retirement.

With Hardy’s status being uncertain as the Orioles begin to play spring training games, they will have to look for players that can step in if necessary. Machado is a natural shortstop, so if Hardy begins the season on the DL he can slide over. That would most likely result in utility player Ryan Flaherty stepping in at third base. The Orioles have also used Chris Davis, normally the team’s first baseman, at third base before. Should Davis play third, look for Mark Trumbo or Flaherty to fill in at first base.

The Orioles have depth in the infield, but manager Buck Showalter would prefer to have his starting guys out there. Hardy is an aging player and even if he is back healthy for opening day, he should get a set amount of days off, such as a day game taking place after a night game. Hardy is without a doubt a crucial veteran presence to have in the club house, but the Orioles need to be careful with him as he attempts to come back from the back spasms.
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