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Manny Machado set to make 2014 debut for Orioles after offseason knee surgery

Manny Machado is set to return after suffering a knee injury last October. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)Manny Machado is set to return after suffering a knee injury last September. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The Orioles are meandering along at 12-12, but on Tuesday night, they'll get a big boost. Via Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the team plans to activate Manny Machado, who has been sidelined since injuring his knee last September 23, in time for Tuesday night's game against the Pirates.

Though he had cooled off considerably after a stellar first half (.310/.337/.470), Machado's overall .283/.314/.432 line with 51 doubles and award-winning defense helped make his 2013 season — his first full one in the majors — one for the ages. His 6.5 WAR ranked fifth in the AL and tied for seventh among players in their age-20 seasons since 1900; six of the top 11 on that list, which is headed by Mike Trout, are in the Hall of Fame. Alas, his year came to an abrupt end when he hit the first base bag awkwardly while running out a base hit in a game against the Rays. While it was initially feared that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, MRIs showed that he had instead torn his medial patellofemoral ligament, which connects the kneecap to the femur.

Out of concern that Machado could suffer a dislocated patella — something that had previously happened to him in 2011, when he was in the minors — he wound up undergoing surgery in October just the same. The recovery timeline suggested that he wouldn't be ready by Opening Day under anything less than a best-case scenario, and a minor setback in mid-March prevented him from playing in the Grapefruit League, so he began the season on the disabled list. He progressed to playing extended spring training games as of April 19, and was sent to the team's High-A Fredrick affiliate on a rehab assignment on April 25 (last Friday). He went 4-for-4 with a walk and a pair of doubles in his debut, and through three games was 8-for-12 with five extra-base hits; a fourth planned appearance was rained out on Monday night.

Obviously, Machado is red hot, but A-ball is a long way from big league caliber, and it's tempting to wonder if the Orioles have accelerated his timetable given that Chris Davis hit the DL this past weekend due to an oblique strain. Though they're second in the AL East, the O's are right at .500, and while the offense's 4.50 runs per game is a hair above league average (4.42 per game), that's more a product of ballpark than anything else; their 95 OPS+ ranks 10th in the league. Their big problem has been the lack of the longball; while their .393 slugging percentage is seventh, it's been driven by a .319 BABIP (second). Meanwhile, their 17 homers rank 13th in the league, while their .128 isolated power is 12th, and much of that is due to the work of Nelson Cruz, who has gone yard seven times. On the heels of his 53-homer season, Davis had hit just two homers and slugged .382 before being sidelined, but he's not the only culprit. J.J. Hardy, who's been hampered by a hamstring strain, is slugging .290 and has yet to homer, and neither have David Lough (.241 SLG) or Nick Markakis (.360 SLG).

In Machado's absence the Orioles have particularly struggled to get adequate production at the hot corner, where manager Buck Showalter has split the playing time between rookie Jonathan Schoop (14 starts) and veteran Ryan Flaherty (10 starts). The two have combined to hit just .213/.239/.326; that .565 OPS is the lowest for any position on the team. Both players involved have seen time elsewhere as well, to no great effect. Schoop (.241/.268/.405 overall) has made seven starts at second base, while Flaherty (.188/.268/.234 overall) has filled in at shortstop eight times. With Machado back, Schoop could return to the minors given his struggles at the plate and in the field.

Even as he shakes the rust out, Machado should be able to improve upon their meager production, which isn't to say that the Orioles should be playing him if he's significantly less than full strength; his future is too important to the franchise's long-term outlook to take chances. Rain in the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday at Camden Yards could forestall his return, or at least curb the team's zeal to rush him back into action.

By itself, Machado's return won't turn the Orioles around. They'll particularly need better work from a rotation whose 4.74 ERA is the league's third-worst, with free agent addition Ubaldo Jimenez (6.59 ERA and 0-for-5 in quality starts) the biggest disappointment. But whether or not the O's can mount a bid to contend, the good news is that just as one of the game's brightest young stars (Bryce Harper) has gone down for a couple of months, another one is about to get back in the swing of things.

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