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Loss of Manny Machado not crippling for Orioles, but requires reshuffling

Manny Machado will have surgery on his injured right knee within the next week and will likely miss the remainder of the regular and postseasons, according to a tweet by Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown. The Orioles have yet to update Machado’s condition since placing him on the disabled list last Wednesday with what they termed a sprained ligament in his right knee, failing to specify which ligament or how severe a sprain. Prior to Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Cubs, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said only that Machado would not be activated when eligible next Wednesday and that he would try to have more specific information on Saturday.

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The loss of Machado is a big one for the Orioles, as Machado is arguably their best all-around player when fully healthy. An outstanding defensive third baseman, Machado was swinging a hot bat when he twisted his right knee on his follow-through in the third inning of the Orioles' 11-4 win over the Yankees on Aug. 11. In his last 56 games leading up to the injury, a span of 239 plate appearances dating back to May 31, he had hit .311/.353/.505 with ten home runs and was 8-for-16 in his last four games including the game in which he was injured. Over the course of those 56 games, the Orioles went 35-21 — good for a .625 winning percentage — the best in baseball over that span.

Nonetheless, Machado’s contributions will likely be limited to 82 total games this season, as knee surgery has ended his season early for the second straight year. Last year, Machado tore the medial patellofemoral ligament in his left knee crossing first base on Sept. 23. That was a catastrophic injury that delayed his debut this season until May 1, after which it took him most of May to shake of the rust and get his swing back. This injury is assumed to be less serious, but we won’t know for sure until the Orioles release the details, which will hopefully happen on Saturday.

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With Machado hurt, the Orioles have been playing Chris Davis at third base, opting to go with an offense-first alignment of Davis at third, Steve Pearce at first base and, quite often, Delmon Young or Nelson Cruz in left field, with the other at designated hitter. That’s a curious decision given that team defense has been a key to their success to this point in the season, but the simple fact is that the bat of glove-first alternative Ryan Flaherty is unplayable. Flaherty was hitting a mere .196/.259/.306 (56 OPS+) in 229 plate appearances on the season entering Friday’s action and is a .212/.272/.354 (72 OPS+) hitter in 667 career plate appearances.

Davis, who played third base exclusively in 2007 while in the minors, had started 68 games at the position in the majors prior to Machado’s injury — including a pair earlier in the season — though he hadn’t played the position with any regularity since making 17 starts there for Baltimore in 2011. That he is a tremendous downgrade at the position defensively is a given, but the Orioles hope he can at least be passable enough to keep the team’s top bats in the lineup to compensate for the loss on defense. Even Flaherty would be a step down from Machado, who combines range, quickness and an incredibly strong and accurate throwing arm to rank among the best fielders in the game.

That decision ignores the fact Davis isn’t out-hitting Flaherty by as much as he should be, batting just .192/.294/.392 on the season, or that Young hasn’t responded well to having more regular playing time despite having an uncharacteristic reverse split on the season. Still, Flaherty is easily the worst hitter on the team this season, the Orioles are already sacrificing offense for defense in keeping rookie Jonathan Schoop at second base on an everyday basis and the team is 6-2 in the games Davis has started at third base this season, including 5-1 with Davis starting at third since Machado’s injury. So the experiment will continue for the time being.

If there’s good news for the Orioles, it’s that their lead in the American League East — eight games after their loss to the Cubs and the Yankees' walk-off win against the White Sox on Friday — is large enough that they should be able to cruise to the division title even without Machado. However, his absence will loom large in the postseason, where Baltimore is already something of an underdog due to its underwhelming starting pitching, making it all the less likely the O’s will play deep into October.