Bill recently posted the story about my first year as an Orioles fan in 1998. Looking back, it was perhaps unfortunate that my interest in baseball didn’t come together until then. The Orioles were able to put together a good team in 1996-1997 complete with Cal Ripken Jr, Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Chris Hoiles, B.J. Surhoff, and Mike Mussina. Both years however they failed to reach the World Series
- 1996: 88 wins – 74 loses. Finished second in American League East (AL East) and won the Wild Card spot for the playoffs. They beat defending AL champion Cleveland Indians in American League Division Series (ALDS) but lost to the New York Yankees in the American League Champsionship Series (ALCS).
- 1997: 94 wins – 68 loses. Finished first in AL East. Beat Seattle Mariners in ALDS but lost to Cleveland Indians in ALCS
The team in 1998 were still trying to hold onto the magic of the previous seasons, hoping the squad would crank out another playoff appearance. That didn’t pan out, as the O’s only on 79 games. From there, things went downhill. They won 78 games in 1999 and midway through the 2000 season, they decided to dismantle the team and rebuild. But the rebuilding wasn’t successful for the longest time: between 2000 and 2011, the O’s never won more than 78 games in a season and had an average of 69 wins per season. It wasn’t until 2012 when the Orioles finally put together a good team and made the playoffs ending fourteen years of losing seasons. Pretty depressing, especially if you are a fan who started rooting for them in year one of this losing streak (like me…).
So what was behind this losing streak? Apart from bad free agent signings (e.g. David Segui, Albert Belle, Sidney Ponson, etc) and bad luck, a lot of the failure can probably be pinpointed on the Orioles weak farm system. Signing players through free agency can get expensive really fast, and usually these players are past their prime when they hit the market. Its important therefore for a team to have a strong farm system where they can rely on most of their talent coming from. During the 2000s, the Orioles were abysmal at developing young players. Apart from some exceptions like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, and Zach Britton, the Orioles have a lot of draft busts between 1998 and 2009. Its safe to say that during his time, the Orioles were not able to develop a superstar type player in their minor league system. It wouldn’t be until 2010 when the Orioles would draft their first potential superstar player who would fulfill his promise, a player who would be my first experience of following a home-grown superstar Orioles player from the start of his career. That player is Manny Machado.
I still remember watching the 2010 MLB player draft as it unfolded in June, 2010. The Orioles had the third overall pick, behind the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Everyone knew the Nationals were going to select Bryce Harper, a phenom who was only 17 years of age. The Pirates (another team with a lot of draft busts in the 2000s) went with right handed pitcher Jameson Taillon (who has had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and finally made is big league debut in 2016). Then came the Orioles turn and they went with Machado, a shortstop at the time. Raised in Miami, Machado quickly had comparisons to another MLB former shortstop from the Miami area who was seen as a superstar: Alex Rodriguez. Right away, Machado was seen as to have the ability to be an elite hitter (for both contact and power) as well as be a great defensive shortstop. Below is a copy of his pre-draft scouting report (taken from MLB.com) which confirms these speculations on what Machado could become.
Machado rose quickly through the Orioles farm system playing in single A ball in 2011 (with Frederick and Delmarva) and then AA ball in 2012 (Bowie). The Orioles were hoping to keep him in the minors until 2013 or so but more immediate things changed that that. The Orioles were in the playoff hunt in 2012, something which hadn’t happened since 1997. While the Orioles had a solid shortstop in J.J. Hardy, they were lacking at third base. In the first half of the season, the Orioles relied on the defense of Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit at third, two players who were anything but competent at third base. By the end of July, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had seen enough and wanted someone else at third. While they probably looked on the trade market for another option, they ultimately decided to try an experiment. Secretly, they approached Machado, still in AA, and asked if he wanted to switch to third base and be promoted to the big club. Manny had a couple of days to practice at third base in Bowie but quickly was promoted to Baltimore and made his MLB debut on August 9, 2012.
Going 2-4 in your MLB debut is impressive enough, but Machado followed it up with hitting two home runs in his next Orioles game.
Right away, we could see that this kid was special. His offensive numbers for the rest of 2012 were pretty quiet (.262 BA, .294 OBP, .445 SLG) but it was his defense that made him shine. People wondered if he could translate his defensive abilities at shortstop to third base. He quickly made it apparent that he could. In fact, he was a game changer at third. In September of 2012, the Orioles were within the Wild Card hunt and every game mattered at that point. On September 12, the Orioles were playing the Tampa Bay Rays and the game was tied in the 9th. With two outs, the Rays had a runner on second base and their best hitter, Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate. What came next fully established the magic and athleticism that Machado was bringing to the Orioles at third base.
Machado would lead off the bottom half of the 9th inning with a single and later score the game winning run off a single from outfield Nate McLouth. Machado (with help from JJ Hardy and Matt Wieters) gave a demonstration at what he could do at third base in the future with that play.
In his first full season in Baltimore (2013), Machado showed that he had the offensive abilities to be in the lineup everyday. He his a respectful .283 with 14 home runs while leading the league with 51 doubles. His walking game (only had 29 walks that season) didn’t make much an impression, but he was only 21 and we hoped he could expand on that a little. Defensively, Machado sparkled. He won not only the 3B Gold Glove award that year (he won it again in 2015) but also the Platinum Glove award, an award given to the best defensive player in the league for that season (at any position). Machado excelled at not only his arm strength and quick hands, but his range.
And finally, my favorite Machado play from 2013 (and of all time) which had people comparing him to the great defensive third baseman Brooks Robinson.
Machado has the perfect combination of arm strength, arm accuracy, quickness, and range that a third baseman can have.
Unfortunately for Machado, the end of the 2013 season didn’t go well. On September 13, the Orioles were playing the Tampa Bay Rays in Florida. In the top of the 7th, Machado hit a clean single to right field but as he rounded the bag, his left knee buckled inward and he partial tore a ligament (I won’t post a video, you can find it on YouTube easily). He was able to return to baseball in May of 2014 but had a tough time adjusting at the plate. To make matters worse, Machado had the SAME injury on his OTHER knee on August 11 of 2014 (again, you can find a video of it on YouTube). People were starting to wonder if all these injuries would hold back Machado’s potential in the future to come.
So far, it hasn’t. Machado came back in 2015 with not only excellent defensive skills, but with a much improved offensive game. His doubles from 2013 started to turn into home runs as he smashed 35 home runs for the year. He also developed patience at the plate no one saw coming, walking 70 times. Wanting to test out his new knees, Machado also stole 20 bases on the season, 10 more than his career total in stolen bases prior to 2015. Overall, Machado’s new offensive approach along with outstanding defense at third granted him a baseball-reference WAR of 7.1, sixth highest in the AL (5th highest among position players). While he didn’t win the MVP that year, he finished 4th in the voting. It was the year that Machado established himself as an elite ballplayer. He cemented that in 2016 where he hit .294, 37 home runs, 128 OPS+, b-WAR 6.7, and finished 5th in MVP voting.
Its worth mentioning that Machado hasn’t been scandal free these past few years. After Machado came back in 2014, he was seen as being sensitive about anything related to the health of his left knee (and with good reason). Bill and I were at a game on June 8 of that year where it was on display. In the bottom of the 8th inning, Oakland pitcher Fernando Abad threw a pitch inside to Manny that came close to hitting him in the left knee. Machado wasn’t happy about that. This is what immediately happened after.
Not the most mature play a baseball player can do. He has since apologized for that and tried to make up for it, but some fans still view him as a hot headed player. That reputation started to mitigate over time but then an on-field fight this past season brought it back up.
Not really helping your reputation their eh Manny?
Potential mental stuff aside, its fair to say that Machado is the best talent the Orioles have developed in their farm system since Mike Mussina (or even Cal Ripken Jr). He is only 24 years old (will turn 25 on July 6) and so he should retain he elite defensive skills at third base as well as his new found power. In fact, I suspect that he hasn’t yet reached his offensive peak and still has room to grow as a hitter. If he can regain his patience he saw in 2015 and keep his 2016 power, I predict he will be a top 3 MVP player this year.