I offhandedly tweeted that Manny Machado might be the most exciting ballplayer to come through Baltimore in 30 years. Which led to a quick mental review of the other candidates to see if I was crazy. The verdict?
Well first, let’s talk about Machado. Our baseball beat guy, Eduardo A. Encina, noted that he’s only the fourth Orioles player to start on Opening Day at age 20 or younger. The other players in that company – Brooks Robinson, Ron Hansen and Boog Powell — give you a sense of how important a distinction it is.
Hansen went on to be a Rookie of the Year and a very good major league shortstop. Powell won an MVP and might have been a Hall of Famer if he had lasted a bit longer. Robinson was a Hall of Famer.
That’s not a fluke, folks. Age matters enormously when judging baseball prospects. Players who establish themselves as starters when they’re 19 or 20 – even if they’re not stars right away — are disproportionately likely to become superstars.
So Machado’s 2012 jump from Double-A to playing a significant role in a pennant race is enormously important in gauging his potential. It’s icing on the cake that his performance only reinforced all the scouting reports we had heard from the time he was drafted.
We’re talking about a guy whose early development is in line with that of great players throughout the game’s history.
So who are the other candidates for most exciting Oriole to come along in the last 30 years or post-Cal?
Machado’s teammate, Matt Wieters, might be his closest competition. Wieters was widely regarded as the best prospect in baseball before he debuted in 2009. But Wieters was 23, not 20, so good as he was, his prodigy potential wasn’t quite as vast. He also plays catcher, the one position that most works against a prospect’s offensive ceiling.
Adam Jones is another possibility. He came to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard trade as a 22-year-old center fielder with five-tool talent. Those don’t grow on trees. But again, hard as it is to believe, there’s a difference between a guy establishing himself at 22 and a guy establishing himself at 20. There’s also the fact that Machado could still play shortstop, which could make him a bit more valuable than an outfielder if he reaches his hitting potential.
Who else is there?
The club has signed a few top free agents in the time period. Roberto Alomar and Miguel Tejada were already great players when they came to town, and they mostly lived up to their billing. But you can’t compare their situations to watching a potential superstar grow from the farm.
Mike Mussina was terrific pretty much from day one. If anything, he exceeded expectations. But he never had that “next big thing” sheen that is part of Machado’s allure. Same for Nick Markakis, who debuted at age 22 and was never projected to play a premium defensive position.
Ben McDonald carried Machado-level hype with him from LSU. But even when he was very good in his 1990 half-season, he wasn’t as overpowering as his reputation suggested.
So yeah, I think my instinct was correct and Machado is the most exciting Oriole to come along since Ripken went nuts on the league and won the MVP as a 23-year-old shortstop.
Really, it’s a testament to the improving fortunes of the Baltimore baseball fan that so many of the guys I considered are current players. A decade ago, an Orioles die-hard would have killed to have one of Wieters, Jones, Machado or Markakis. Now, they’re all here and still in their 20s.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun