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Tom Verducci: Did Nationals give Stephen Strasburg too much money?
1:90 | MLB
Tom Verducci: Did Nationals give Stephen Strasburg too much money?
Wednesday May 11th, 2016

The Orioles continue to win, and Manny Machado remains red hot. On Sunday, the 23-year-old slugger's two home runs—including an eighth-inning grand slam, his second of the season—powered the O's past the A's, 11–3. On Tuesday, he went 3 for 3 with another homer as Baltimore downed Minnesota, 5–3. Machado is dominating the American League's offensive leader boards, and he's providing a new wrinkle: He's doing it as a shortstop.

Tuesday's homer, a solo shot off a dead-center changeup from Twins rookie Jose Berrios, broke a 1–1 tie and was one of five times Machado reached base in five plate appearances, matching a career best set July 7, 2014 (five hits including two for extra bases against the Nationals) and equaled last Sept. 12 against the Royals (via two hits, two walks and a hit-by-pitch):

With Tuesday's outburst, Machado now has 19 hits in his last 43 at-bats, 11 of them for extra-bases. During that span, totaling 49 plate appearances, he's hit .442/.510/.884, a tear that has lifted his overall line to .365/.424/.722. Both the on-base and slugging percentages lead the league, as do his 210 OPS+, 46 hits, 15 doubles, 91 total bases and 2.6 WAR. Meanwhile, he's second in batting average behind the Tigers' Nick Castellanos (.378) and tied for second with the White Sox's Todd Frazier with 10 homers, both behind Robinson Cano, who has 12. We're not sure why he's lagging so far behind in those categories, but please, give him some time to mend his slacking ways before pouncing.

Beyond helping the Orioles maintain their spot atop the AL East—at 19–12, they're in a virtual tie with the Red Sox (20–13)—the notable facet of Machado's latest run is that he's largely done it at his natural position, shortstop. On May 1, J.J. Hardy fouled a pitch off his left foot, going on the disabled list two days later after x-rays revealed a hairline fracture that will keep him out for four to six weeks. Including his taking over shortstop in the game that Hardy departed, Machado has played the position seven times in the team's last eight games; he started at third base during the first game of a doubleheader against the A's on May 7, with Paul Janish manning short.

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Of course, Machado put himself on the map as a shortstop prospect, albeit one who was expected to move to third base at some point given his size (6'3", 185 pounds) and the presence of Hardy. Between the time he was drafted with the No. 3 pick in 2010 and his Aug. 8, 2012 major league debut, Machado played just two regular-season games at the hot corner at Double A Bowie in June 2012, roughly two months before being recalled. To say that he's taken to third base well would be an understatement. Even including the four-month head start that the rest of the field got on him in 2012, his 64 Defensive Runs Saved in that span trails only Nolan Arenado (+71) for the lead at the position, and his 54 runs above average via Ultimate Zone Rating is tops, 14 ahead of Josh Donaldson and 16 ahead of Arenado. Machado has taken home two Gold Gloves (2013 and '15) plus a Platinum one ('13) as the best defender in the league at any position, and his highlight reel of defensive gems can compete with any in the game. Here's an MLB.com montage celebrating last year's Gold Glove win:

Though Hardy has hit just .248/.290/.383 for an 83 OPS+ since the start of 2012, he has three Gold Gloves and 44 DRS in that span himself, a close fourth in the majors behind Zack Cosart (47) and Brandon Crawford (48), with Andrelton Simmons the runaway leader (120); his +43 UZR is second behind Simmons's +73 during that time. Via DRS and Baseball-Reference.com, he averaged 3.5 WAR in the first three of those seasons before flatlining to 0.0 last year in playing through a torn labrum in his left shoulder, suffered during spring training and costing him the first 25 games of the year, and set across-the-board career worsts with a .219/.253/.311 line and a 54 OPS+. This year's .244/.291/.410 line, despite the lousy OBP, has been good for a 91 OPS+, more than playable with his typical defense.

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Still, whether the Machado-Hardy left side configuration is the right one for Baltimore has been a nagging question in the minds of just about everyone outside of the Baltimore brass, even as the team broke its long postseason-free dry spell with playoff appearances in 2012 and '14, their first and second since 1997. The O's signed Hardy to a three-year, $40 million extension in October 2014, one for which he's owed $12.5 million this year, $14 million next year and either a $2 million buyout or a $14 million salary via a club option that can vest for '18. The move made clear the team's commitment to keeping the configuration in place, and Machado had just seven appearances at shortstop last season, mainly in spot starts when Hardy sat, though he did play four games out of five there during one September stretch.

Machado's total of 17 games played at short in 2015–16 is far too small a sample size to take the fielding metrics seriously, but there's been nothing to indicate that he couldn't handle the position regularly, and it's not exactly out of vogue to play such a big man there. The Astros' Carlos Correa and the Dodgers' Corey Seager are both listed at 6'4", 215 pounds; Hall of Famer and Baltimore legend Cal Ripken Jr. was listed at 6'4", 200 pounds; and Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki, Didi Gregorius, Ian Desmond and Jordy Mercer constitute just a partial list of the 6'3" shortstops of recent years.

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Arguably if the O's were to establish Machado at shortstop, he would be more valuable to the team. The state of the shortstop position around the game is such that several teams could use a healthy Hardy, and filling third base—or second, if Jonathan Schoop were to move—would be less of a challenge than finding another shortstop come 2018 (or earlier, if Hardy were traded). Of course, that tack involves a lot of "ifs," not the least of which is how strong a fielder Machado proves to be at the spot if he does spend Hardy's full DL stint there. Plus, boosting Machado's value could cut both ways, as he's still got two years of arbitration eligibility and a sticker price that already figures to exceed Chris Davis's seven-year, $162 million contract if he reaches free agency—though Cliff Corcoran noted on Tuesday that a deal with some kind of opt-out that lets Machado test free agency before age 30 could be a possibility as well.

Even given his age and the timing of his arrival, Machado is sometimes the forgotten man in the ongoing Mike Trout/Bryce Harper debate over the game's top young superstar. Machado, younger than Trout by 11 months and older than Harper by about three, doesn't have an MVP on his mantle yet, but he already has the most defensive value of the trio without a move to shortstop; since 2012, he has 8.3 defensive WAR (DRS plus the position adjustment for third base and shortstop) to Trout's 2.1 (he was in the red in centerfield DRS in both 2013 and '14) and Harper's 1.2. Still, even with last year's breakout (.286/.359/.502 with 35 homers, 20 steals and 7.1 WAR) and this year's hot start, it's a stretch to suggest he's achieved parity with the pair:

player war avg/obp/slg ops+
Bryce Harper 11.4 .317/.455/.641 191
Mike Trout 11.4 .302/.402/.584 176
Josh Donaldson 10.5 .292/.372/.565 155
Paul Goldschmidt 9.8 .306/.431/.551 162
Manny Machado 9.6 .299/.369/.539 144

That's the majors' top five in WAR since the start of 2015. Even with this year's MLB-leading 2.6 WAR and the aforementioned advantage in defensive value, Machado is nearly two wins behind the pair and is "only" in a virtual tie for 10th in OPS+ in that span.

If his current play is any indication, Machado is becoming an even greater offensive force than before, which makes sense, given what we know about player aging patterns, though of course the same goes for Trout and Harper. Still, the next four to six weeks should be very interesting to watch for signs that Machado’s play at shortstop sways the Orioles when it comes to long-term planning.

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