When Ryan Wagner, the public-address announcer in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, introduced the home team's No. 9 hitter last night --"Now batting for the Orioles, and making his major league debut, third baseman, Number 13, Manny Machado" -- he may as well have been a town crier heralding a new era in Baltimore.
By calling up the 20-year-old Machado, the Orioles, who are in a three-way tie for the two wild cards and are 5½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East, are stating their intentions for the season's stretch run.
"We're serious," Dan Duquette, Baltimore executive vice president of baseball operations, said in a telephone interview. "We think Manny makes us a stronger team."
Duquette personally scouted Machado, the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 and the sport's No. 9 prospect according to Baseball America's midseason list, twice in the past month. The first time came at the Futures Game in Kansas City -- where Machado doubled, drove in two runs and made a slick defensive stop at short while playing with and against the game's elite prospects -- and the second at one of his Double A games within the last two weeks.
During that time Machado has been on an ongoing hot streak that seems to have been the tipping point for his call-up. He was hitting .485 in his last nine games in Double A (16-for-33), including hitting for the cycle against Trenton on Aug. 4. For the season he was hitting .266 with a .352 on-base percentage while slugging .438 with 11 homers in 109 games.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Miami native did not disappoint in his Baltimore debut, going 2-for-4 and converting all three chances at third base. Machado tripled into the right-centerfield gap in the fifth inning for his first big league hit -- on an 0-and-2 breaking ball, no less -- and beat out an infield single in the seventh. The Royals won 8-2, however, snapping the Orioles' five-game winning streak.
"If we can do something that makes us two inches better to have a chance to win the last 49 games," Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Baltimore, "we're going to do it."
Machado's exact playing schedule is unclear, but presumably he'll be on the field regularly for the Orioles. He was drafted as a shortstop and played 208 games there in the minors but that position is blocked in Baltimore by J.J. Hardy, who is under contract for $7 million per year through 2014. Machado began taking groundballs at third base in May at the behest of the big league club and made two minor league starts there, and as Duquette says, "It's not completely foreign to him."
Machado has shown a "tremendous baseball aptitude" in everything he does, says Gary Kendall, his manager at Double A Bowie. "There's not going to be too many roadblocks that stand in this guy's way because he's willing to get better. He's a sponge on the field."
He'll have to learn quickly at third base, a position that has been a struggle for Baltimore this year. Mark Reynolds has made six errors in his 15 games at the hot corner and has spent most of his time at first base (where he played Thursday night). Wilson Betemit, who has played 75 games at third, has hit a disastrous .145 against lefthanded pitching with an AL-worst .419 OPS. Machado, meanwhile, had a .303/.394/.523 slash line against southpaws in the minors.
More broadly, the aggressive promotion of a top prospect during a playoff chase is noteworthy because it could be for the best way for wild card-contending clubs to hedge their bets in August by improving their team without mortgaging the future in a trade.
Now that the revised postseason structure calls for just a one-game play-in between the two wild cards, most organizations won't want to trade a top prospect or prospects for a veteran rental who'll be more costly and provide less service before leaving.
The Orioles, for instance, were linked to acquiring then-Phillies starter Joe Blanton -- a free-agent-to-be who has since been traded to the Dodgers -- at the deadline, but the Baltimore Sun reported that a key sticking point was that Baltimore didn't want to pick up the tab on the $3 million remaining on his contract this year and CBSSports.com wrote that the O's balked at trading infield prospect Jonathan Schoop.
Instead, they reached into Double A for a potential difference-maker without assuming a big salary or trading a prospect. Sure, Machado begins accruing service time, but his debut has come late enough in the year that he won't reach the costly Super 2 status, so the only potential negative is if he fails in the majors and sets back his development calendar. That's why such promotions should be relegated to the best of the best, those prospects labeled as "can't miss."
"Everybody focuses on players coming to the team from outside the organization, but when they're in the organization, they understand the system," said Duquette, noting the contributions of homegrown starters Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Steve Johnson. "They're comfortable. That would be my first preference. Fortunately, we have a really talented player in Machado that can come up and make a contribution to the team.
"I'm not sure there were any players with as much raw skill and ability that were traded [before the July 31 non-waiver deadline]."
Reminded that the Marlins traded shortstop/third baseman Hanley Ramirez -- a player Duquette signed as an amateur free agent when he ran the Red Sox' baseball operations -- to the Dodgers on July 25, Duquette said, "That's interesting. Hanley's a pretty good comparison of a young player that's skilled in all areas of the game." He paused and said, "I have a hunch that Manny can make a real impact on our team here."
Consider the impact Rays lefthander Matt Moore had last year at age 22, when he started and subsequently dominated the Rangers in ALDS Game 1 despite having only 9 1/3 big league innings to his name.
Other contenders have likewise called up top prospects to aid their playoff push. Oakland, another club chasing this year's AL wild cards, recently promoted righthander Dan Straily, who led all of the minors in strikeouts. The AL West-leading Rangers made a few big trades but also supplemented their mid-season acquisitions by calling up third base prospect Mike Olt, No. 11 on the BA list.
Arizona promoted Justin Upton as a 19-year-old in 2007 when it went on to win the NL West. He only batted .221 in 43 regular season games but gave them a postseason spark, going 5-for-14 before the team bowed out in the NLCS.
Ironically, adding a top prospect to help a team secure a playoff spot may actually put less pressure on the player. Contending for a postseason appearance means a club is already established and winning, and thus the prospect can merely be an additional contributor -- Machado batted ninth on Thursday night -- rather than the perceived savior of a down-and-out franchise desperate for good news.
There's no reason to think Machado and his blue-chip peers can't make a difference. After all, this is a major league season defined, in part, by the success of Angels outfielder Mike Trout at age 20 (he only turned 21 on Aug. 7) and Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper at age 19, who have been with their big league clubs most of the year. Like Machado, Harper also had to make a change in positions -- moving from amateur catcher to pro outfielder -- though he had more time to learn his new craft.
"It's my experience that the natural players who have all the tools can play wherever you put them," Duquette said. "I think Manny's one of those players. He's just a real talent.
"It'll be pretty clear to everybody in a short time how talented and skillful Manny Machado is."
If Machado succeeds in helping push the Orioles to the playoffs, all of baseball will take note.