BALTIMORE -- Chris Davis may have dominated the offseason headlines, and Adam Jones has long been considered the face of the franchise, but more than anybody it’s Manny Machado who will determine how high the 2016 Birds will fly.
Just 23 years old, Machado is coming off a breakout season in which he blossomed into the five-tool player the Baltimore Orioles were banking on when they selected him third overall in the 2010 draft. His 35 home runs were 10th most in the American League and two more than he’d hit in his first three years combined. Combined with his 20 steals, which were 14 more than his previous career high, he ended 2015 as the AL’s only 20/20 player. His walk-to-strikeout ratio was more than double what it was a year earlier, and he continued to flash the kind of lockdown, highlight-reel leather that netted him his second Gold Glove and has folks in Baltimore comparing him to the greatest third baseman of all time, former Oriole Brooks Robinson. As if that weren’t enough, he played in all 162 games, the only player in the majors to do so.
During a disappointing 2015 campaign when Matt Wieters wasn’t himself returning from Tommy John surgery, J.J. Hardy's power disappeared and the offense suffered greatly from the loss of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, it’s a minor miracle that the Orioles scored more runs last season (4.40 per game) than in 2014 (4.35). Obviously, Davis and his 47 homers had something to do with that, but not as much as Machado, whose 5.7 oWAR was actually higher than Davis’ (5.2), and who finished fourth in the voting for American League MVP. Still, there are question marks when it comes to Machado.
For starters, can he stay healthy again? In 2013, he suffered a freak, season-ending left knee injury stepping on first base while running out a ground ball. A year later, he blew out his other knee swinging at a pitch. Given the current state of Baltimore’s rotation, the O’s can ill afford to lose Machado’s bat or glove for any length of time.
Assuming Machado can avoid the DL, there’s the issue of where in the batting order he’ll be. In an ideal world, Buck Showalter would probably prefer to use Machado in the 3-hole, where most managers put their best all-around hitter. Of course, in that same ideal world, the Orioles would have a legit leadoff man. Unfortunately, this is the real world, where Baltimore hasn’t had a true every-day table setter since Brian Roberts in 2009. Since then, there have been impostors aplenty, including Machado, who posted a very leadoff-ish .364 on-base percentage in 111 games atop the O’s lineup last season, but whose power would play better in the middle of the order. It’s possible that South Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, whom Baltimore signed in December and who had a .406 OBP during his 10-year career in Asia, could take over the top spot, allowing Machado to slide down to the 2-hole, or maybe even a little lower. If Dexter Fowler signs, that might push Machado down to third spot. If not, and if Kim has trouble adjusting, or if Showalter prefers to have a little more speed in the top spot, Machado could easily find himself leading off again.
But perhaps the biggest question surrounding Machado involves his contract status. Specifically, how much longer will he be in Baltimore? As it stands now, he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the 2018 season. If Machado stays healthy until then and hits the open market at the ripe young age of 26, it’s hard to imagine the cost-conscious O’s committing the kind of cabbage it would take to keep him in Charm City long term ($300 million to $400 million doesn’t seem like a stretch). If, however, Machado gets hurt again, his future value takes a hit, something he’s no doubt aware of. As such, the Orioles would be well-served to act early and try to lock up their star third baseman for a discount sometime prior to fall 2018. Even though it’s only spring training 2016, it’s never too early to start the discussion.