Can J.J. Hardy, soon to be the most coveted free-agent shortstop, use October to erase any fears about a lingering back problem this season?
He can try.
There's no time like the playoffs to jack up a player's price tag for the coming winter -- just ask Carlos Beltran -- and Hardy took advantage of that stage Thursday night with a seventh-inning homer off Tigers ace Max Scherzer.
The Orioles eventually rolled to a 12-3 victory in Game 1 of the ALDS. But Hardy's blast, which sailed deep into the left-centerfield bullpen, gave them a 4-2 edge that looked like necessary insurance when Miguel Cabrera answered with his own bomb in the eighth.
We happen to know a couple of teams in the market for a shortstop, and someone like Hardy -- a two-time Gold Glove winner with a career .734 OPS -- certainly would help fill that void for the Yankees or Mets.
It's rare for both local clubs to pursue the same player, though, especially with money being tight these days in Flushing, and there's a decent chance we also won't see it this offseason.
With the Yankees desperate to replace Derek Jeter and no ready in-house alternatives, that's very, very good news for Hardy's bank account. We saw what happened last offseason when the Yankees identified their most obvious holes: They spent nearly $500 million to patch them.
On Wednesday, Hal Steinbrenner told ESPN Radio he remains averse to trading young prospects but is not shy about spending more cash to fix the Yankees. It's what a Steinbrenner does. And luring Hardy away from the AL East champions, who would have a hard decision to make about whether to match the offer, would be an added bonus.
Hardy would be an instant upgrade over the 40-year-old Jeter, giving the Yankees the range and pop they lacked with the retiring captain. But he's 32 himself, and he also needed a cortisone shot in his lower back just to survive a lackluster September, when Hardy had a slash line of .164/.239/.197 in 17 games.
That's something for the Yankees to think about after watching a few of their more expensive 30-something pieces break down this summer. Beltran's bone spur, CC Sabathia's knee, a variety of Mark Teixeira's body parts. It's not a coincidence that older players are the most fragile, and it will be interesting to see what Hardy commands in terms of contract length.
One 2013 comp is Jhonny Peralta, who got a four-year, $53-million contract from the Cardinals last November. That deal was completed only days after the Mets took Peralta to dinner and realized his asking price was going to exceed what they had budgeted.
The Mets assumed Peralta would be available at a discount after his Biogenesis-related suspension, but the Cardinals weren't deterred by his PED stain and swooped in early to lock him up.
Hardy is a year older than Peralta and is coming off a down season by his standards, with only nine home runs in 569 plate appearances. In his previous three seasons, Hardy averaged 25 homers, with a career-high 30 in 2011.
Was 2014 an aberration for Hardy? Or was it the start of a negative trend? That's the gamble with Hardy, and he spent a long time in the trainer's room after Thursday night's win, emerging after many of the Orioles had emptied out of the clubhouse.
It's possible he just requires plenty of extra maintenance at this time of year, which is not unusual, and he could be as good as new after an offseason of rest. With offensive shortstops in such high demand, teams will overlook Hardy's painful 2014 if he rebounds with a big October, and Thursday night was a great start.
Hardy is on track for Peralta money, and that will prevent any conversations with the Mets from getting serious. Sandy Alderson talked as if they won't spend their limited funds on a shortstop, perhaps thinking Wilmer Flores might help provide an offensive jolt from that position in 2015.
If nothing else, Flores is a cheaper alternative than someone like Hardy.
For the Yankees, of course, it's only money.