BALTIMORE – He is just 20 years old having stormed inside a Washington-area beltway from a glamorous hometown where fantasy is the great commodity. Last fall, a baseball team rode his first taste at the major leagues to an improbable postseason.
People marvel at the way he changed from his natural position to a new one in the big leagues. They say the switch was seamless. They gasp at his power. They adore his swing. They watch him now and they project a great future. They believe they were watching one of baseball's next great things.
Except this is not Bryce Harper. The beltway is Baltimore's, not Washington's. The hometown is Miami, not Las Vegas. And the next great player, Manny Machado, plays third base having moved from shortstop.
And maybe if Machado was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 or smeared eyeblack on his face like John Randle or ran face-first into outfield fences he would be a bigger deal. He would make headlines. He would lead highlight shows. He would be the biggest young thing in baseball.
Instead, Machado is among the American League leaders with a .322 average. He's tied for the league lead in doubles, is tied for second in hits and sixth in total bases. He has been so good at third base, his Wins Above Replacement for position players, 2.6, was second-best in the league headed into Wednesday's game.
"He has style, he just doesn't show it," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Wednesday night after Machado had two more hits in a 6-3 Baltimore victory over the New York Yankees. "He wants his substance to be his style and not his style be his substance."
In barely more than a year, baseball has seen its next generation emerge. The future everyone talks about involves Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout. It's easy to see why. Harper was clearly the best young player in the National League last year and Trout probably deserved to win the MVP with his 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases.
Harper may be the best thing the game has to a sensation these days. His every move is news. His catapults into outfield walls have already become legend. Trout has a national commercial campaign at a time when most of baseball's biggest stars don't even get local commercials.
But Machado, with only 97 games to his major league career, deserves to be in the conversation. He may not be Harper and Trout … yet. He is also not far behind.
"Which one would you want?" one manager asked recently, considering the three and knowing that Machado will someday move back to shortstop. "Knowing their positions and what they can do, which one would you take?"
The implication being Machado, as a shortstop, would become the most essential of the three. Teams can always find outfielders. A shortstop who can both field and hit might be the most coveted player in the game, a cornerstone around which a team can build.
On Wednesday, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette watched his young third baseman jog off the field after batting practice and smiled. He wasn't around when the team took Machado with the third overall pick of the 2010 draft, two spots behind Harper. He did oversee Machado's rise to the major leagues last summer and made the decision to play him in the big leagues at third.
As much as anyone, Duquette understands Machado, realizes what he already is and what he can already be. And the smile lingered on his lips as he pondered the draft now almost three years in the past.
"Maybe he wasn't No. 1 that year," he said of Machado. "But maybe he was."
The Orioles never sweated their promotion of Machado last year. Much like they did in bringing 2012's No. 1 pick, pitcher Kevin Gausman, to the big leagues this week, they realized Machado was ready. They prepared him in empty minor league stadiums, having him field endless ground balls while staring at a basketball shot clock that ticked down the time he had to fire a throw to first. He handled it so well, they never doubted a decision to throw him into an American League East race at the most crucial time.
If anything, Showalter is protective of Machado. He likes those moments when his franchise player shows bits of flair but he also wants to hide him in the protective cocoon of his clubhouse. If Machado isn't the lead story on every highlight show at 20 years old, well Showalter is fine with that. He is watching something bigger. Something better.
Next week Machado and Harper will play against each other for the first time in a regular-season game. The series will come as controversy swirls around Harper for his style of play and some critical words from Nationals closer Rafael Soriano for being out of position on a double that cost Soriano a save on Tuesday in San Francisco. Machado almost disappears in the Orioles' clubhouse. Just as a sparkling start to his major league career has barely drawn a ripple nationally.
Let someone else run into outfield walls and wipe paint on their face.
They'll be talking about Manny Machado soon enough.
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