It is an exciting time for Orioles fans. Baltimore has taken care of business thus far on a 10-game home stand against teams of which they desperately need to take advantage. Last night, after the O's fifth straight victory, it was announced that Dylan Bundy (rhp, #1 ranked Orioles prospect) was to be promoted from Class A Frederick to Double-A Bowie for his next start. Moments later, a bombshell was dropped -- Manny Machado (ss, #2 ranked Orioles prospect) was being jumped from Double-A Bowie to Baltimore, and would debut today.
I was tempted to stay out of the fray for a few days. The signal-to-noise ratio on Machado appraisals, and appraisals of the decision by the Orioles front office to make this promotion, is minuscule, with lots of comparisons to the likes of Elvis Andrus and Starlin Castro, some mentions of the struggles of Mike Trout in his first taste of Major League Baseball last summer (and of course his subsequent emergence as an elite producer in The League), cautionary references to Matt Wieters and his hot-cold three-plus years with the Orioles, and of course reference to Alex Rodriguez and his first 200 at bats as a teenager with the Seattle Mariners.
Machado is a special talent. He has the natural ability, the pedigree, and the force of the national "prospect experts" behind him. He has two MLB Futures Game appearances in his belt. He has been among the youngest players in the league at each stop in his professional career and has held his own (even excelling for periods of time against much older competition). As an amateur he was a focused and determined player, relying heavily on a strong support system in his family, teammates and amateur team coaches. His grades on make-up at the professional level have been good, and anecdotal stories from scouts have been better. All of the elements are here for Machado to step into the start of a long and exciting career.
I'm not going to use this space to temper enthusiasm, or to point out flaws in the comparisons that I referenced above. This isn't the right environment for a tempered and analytical discussion on player development, evaluation and comparison of players across skill sets and periods of time, or projection systems estimating Major League performance based on minor league data. No matter the manner in which they have come to find themselves here, the Orioles are in the playoff hunt in August and have just promoted their top positional prospect to the Bigs -- a prospect largely considered (among relevant evaluative reporters) one of the top ten in all of baseball.
Let the ulta-optimistic fans come up with reasons that Machado will be the difference in the O's making the playoffs. Let the armchair evaluators break down "Machado's game" and how it will play in Baltimore. Let the passing prospect fans make ill-fitting comps and let the .gif and YouTube crowd break down the same 45 second clips while providing "scouty" reports. This is what happens when something transcendently exciting happens. Everyone is interested and everyone would like to share their thoughts. The promotion of a nationally recognized prospect is just such a transcendent occurrence, and that is nothing but a good thing for all baseball fans.
O's fans and baseball fans in general will now be treated with the opportunity to view Machado as often as the Orioles decide to play him. Manny gets a taste of "the good life", staying at comfortable hotels, traveling first class or charter by plane and train, and playing against the best baseball players in the world in front of tens of thousands of people in person and hundreds of thousands of people via video. I, for one, am looking forward to taking off my scouting cap (okay, it goes back on during the weekend -- there is still a lot of work to be done for my MLB org on the 2013 draft class) and just watching Machado play. I hope would-be sports writers and bloggers, message board participants, and O's fans in general enjoy writing about and debating the merits of Machado's promotion. I also hope they allow themselves the luxury of just sitting back and watching this promising Baby Bird take his first few steps.
No, I'm not going to hypocritically follow that up with a scouting report...Because I've been asked, here are a couple paragraphs highlighting what I'm most looking forward to seeing over the next few weeks. After Labor Day, I'll post my in-depth thoughts on Machado the Major Leaguer. For the next few weeks, I'm 100% in observation (fan) mode (sorry).
Machado has been working out at third base for some time at Bowie, despite limited in-game action there. No amount of side work prepares you for balls off of Major League bats at the hot corner, but Machado has very soft hands, a cannon for an arm, and a pretty good lower-half, all of which should help. The biggest challenge for a shortstop making this switch at the Major League level (let alone while simultaneously jumping from Double-A) is adjusting to angles and letting go of control.
Angles, I think, are self explanatory. The ball comes off the bat a little differently at third than at short, with a slightly different spin. Because Major League infields are manicured differently than minor league infields, there is an additional adjustment to balls off of Major League grass. Making those new reads is something that can only be accomplished through reps. I look forward to seeing Manny's pre-game infield and, what I assume will be, regular additional reps during BP. I look forward to seeing growth in this part of his game the longer he's at the five-spot.
"Letting go of control" speaks to a difference in approach between third and short. Shortstops, for the most part, have the freedom to create their lines and their hops. The difference between an average shortstop and a good shortstop, and between a good shortstop and an elite shortstop, is largely instinctual.
The best shortstops have a comfort level in the field that allows them to be creative in the lines they take in order to put themselves in the best position possible to complete a play. At third, Machado will often have to let go of the urge to create those lines and hops and get used to playing the ball as it's hit. There is less room (and less time) to maneuver, which means more importance is placed on soft hands, quick actions, and proper positioning. It is a challenging switch to be sure, and watching a talent like Machado make those adjustments should be fun.
There is little mystery here. I am looking forward to seeing Machado apply a general solid approach to Major League pitching. He'll get to pick the minds of O's hitters and coaches and will be in a position to make rapid adjustments. At the same time, he will be facing the best pitching he has ever faced. I could hazard an estimate at OPS, while pointing out the areas I think are most likely to challenge the young infielder, but that can wait for the post-Labor Day piece. Right now it is very, very simply -- I want to see how Manny sees the ball; I want to see how Manny hits the ball.
I'll check in tomorrow with some thoughts on tonight's game; Happy Machado Day O's fans!