Manny Machado: Hot Corner Promise in Baltimore
Bet on Talent:
The Baltimore Orioles were one of the surprise stories of the 2012 season. They coalesced as a team last year to spark a playoff run that amazed observers throughout the baseball universe. Nobody saw it coming and it turned into one of the best things to watch in the game.
The Orioles were winning nearly every 1-run game and somehow managed to truly dominate any game (results-wise) that went to extra-innings. They won 90 games with as anonymous a starting rotation as there was in baseball and a bullpen of guys who were experiencing heretofore unseen levels of success. This pitching staff complemented a lineup with several talented young players forming a solid core but also a lineup with some pronounced holes.
Among the holes the Orioles were dealing with was a gaping defensive chasm at third-base. Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds both have some (though limited) offensive value but neither is a quality third-sacker and the defense-dependent pitching staff was probably feeling the pinch of having stiffs manning the Hot Corner. What did the Orioles do? They got inspired. They bet on their talent development. They didn’t troll the trade market for a guy who was available…..being “available” usually carries it’s own set of issues after all….no, the Orioles saw that they had a young Shortstop sitting in AA with defensive skills unlike most anyone who was possibly attainable. The problem was that he had never really played third-base. The name of this wunderkind about to be entrusted with a big responsibility? Manny Machado. Barely turned 20, Machado was thrown into the deep end of the pool with only a couple of games at 3B under his belt.
Machado more than held his own under the heat of a playoff race last year. Given the circumstances the Orioles probably could not have been more pleased with how his natural ability kept the youngster afloat under late-season scrutiny. Machado’s slashline in 202 Plate Appearances wasn’t earth-shattering, but at .262/.294/.445 it was a playable bat when you consider his glove work buttoned up the left side of Baltimore’s defense tight as a drum working in conjunction with the solid defense of shortstop JJ Hardy. According to Fangraphs, Machado’s work down the stretch equated to 5 runs above replacement which in a 51-game stretch is yeoman’s work for a kid who had never manned the position. The Orioles bet on their minor league talent doing more for them then working the trade market and the results seem to say they came up winners with their post-season appearance.
As for Machado’s future? He returned to the big league club this year and he is still the third-baseman in 2013. The question appears to be, “how long will he stay there?”. He is off to a solid start defensively once again. Fangraphs already has him at 5-runs above replacement once again this year. There seems to be no question he can be a well-above average 3B. But will the Orioles want to eventually move him back to his natural position at Shortstop? Will his dazzling glove be of more use up the middle? The veteran Hardy is signed through 2014, which provides some level of short-term complication. How long can Machado stay at 3B before it makes little sense to move him back to SS? Is there a time limit? That remains to be a big call made in Baltimore moving forward.
Offensively Machado is still in his developmental phase. This is to be expected for a youngster who doesn’t turn 21 until this July. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout might be serving to raise the ceiling for what very young players can produce, but Machado actually isn’t far off reasonable expectations. Machado is showing some extra-base power and as he matures that should naturally increase. If you buy into positional offensive profiles, there is no question that he would profile as a premium middle infield bat. This is what is driving the questions about moving him back to shortstop. His glove skills and bat work promise to be a great combination. He will still likely be a well above average 3B offensively as well. It’s a good problem to have obviously…..”where do we play this fabulously talented youngster?” is a “can’t lose” proposition when the decision is being made because of how good the glove is, not because you’re trying to hide the glove to keep the bat in the lineup.
Machado still has work to do. His walk-rate is rather low which will dampen his On-Base Percentage for a while. The expectation is probably that with experience he will tighten his strike zone. Last year when he was called up he did offer at 33% of pitches outside the strike zone as he was getting acclimated to MLB opposition. This year, in the early going, he has cut that number to about 21%. He walked in only 4.5% of his plate appearances last year but has raised that to 6.3% so far in 2013. That is a very modest increase and 6.3% is still very low….but it’s headed in the right direction. The thought here is that Machado will grow into more power and with experience become a fair bit more selective at the plate once he has toured the league a few times.
The Orioles have a fairly young offensive core to build around. Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis…..all solid players. But it’s Machado who appears to be the one with the shot to be the franchise cornerstone moving forward. How fast his game matures will be very interesting to watch. If he takes major strides in front of our eyes this summer his development could be instrumental to another playoff run for the club from Orioles Park at Camden Yards.