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Although absent, Orioles' Manny Machado the center of attention at FanFest

Most of a sleepy Orioles offseason has centered around Manny Machado, whether he’d be traded this winter and whether he’d be granted his wish to move to shortstop if still on the team in 2018, all while the fan base came to terms with the likelihood that his days in the only major league uniform he’s worn are numbered.

Even during an event the 25-year-old superstar didn’t attend, Machado was the focus of Saturday’s Orioles Fanfest event. Machado missed the offseason’s showcase fan event for the second time in three years for an undisclosed personal reason, one that manager Buck Showalter defended as a legitimate one.

Despite no Machado — who joined second baseman Jonathan Schoop in being dropped from the FanFest roster 24 hours before the event — along with the excused absences of first baseman Chris Davis (his wife Jill gave birth to twins earlier this week) and Zach Britton (recovering from last month’s Achilles tendon surgery), an announced crowd of more than 11,000 still attended the event at the Baltimore Convention Center.

After spending most of the offseason fielding trade offers for Machado, and not receiving an offer suitable to all levels of the organization, the Orioles are prepared to open the season with Machado. And manager Buck Showalter said Saturday that Machado will be shifted to shortstop from third base, moving Tim Beckham to third after he was acquired July 31 to fill the shortstop position for the next three seasons.

Machado requested to move to shortstop late last season, a desire that became public during last month’s winter meetings as the Orioles actively began fielding trade offers for the three-time All-Star in the last offseason before he reaches free agency. A successful move to shortstop, where Machado has made just 49 major league starts, could enhance his value.

Showalter is big on infield defense, but he said moving Machado away from the position where he won two Gold Glove Awards and an American League Platinum Glove is in the best interest of the club after longtime shortstop J.J. Hardy became a free agent this offseason.

“It is Manny’s natural position and Manny’s basically played shortstop in the shift for three or four years,” Showalter said. “I think we’re moving Manny back to his natural position. And Tim’s been playing a lot of places. I know how important Manny is for our team and I think he could be the most impactful there, especially without J.J. ... We had some challenges there without J.J. and I think Manny is the best option there, and Tim can do it, too.”

Beckham, 28, said he was looking forward to the opportunity to move to third, where he’s made just five major league starts.

“[Machado] was originally a shortstop and that’s where his heart is and, like I said, if I have to move to third base, I’m open for it,” Beckham said. “It’s exciting man. It’s a new position for me. I’m ready to go over and have some fun, for sure.”

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said the position switch of Machado and Beckham will help the club defensively, and infield defense has been critical for the team under Showalter, but took a step back last season.

“Our three most productive players last year were Schoop, Manny and Beckham,” Duquette said. “With the shifting that we do in the infield, we do a lot of position shifting with those three. The position shifting allows us to leverage the strength of each of those players, so our goal is to have a good defensive team and the strongest defensive team that we can have. Those guys will be a key part of that defensive team.”

Even though Machado didn’t attend, it was clear from the number of his No. 13 jerseys worn by fans of all ages that he is the team’s most popular player. Among those fans was 8-year-old Carter Rhodes of Westminster, who wore an orange Machado jersey. Carter has been a Machado fan since watching him hit grand slams in the first two games he attended two seasons ago.

“The main attraction for him was Manny Machado, but we were going to come regardless,” said Carter’s mother, Jessica. “He’s also a big Jonathan Schoop fan.”

“I wanted to get an autograph from Schoop, but he’s not here,” Carter said.

Instead, Carter looked forward to getting outfielder Joey Rickard’s autograph, who he became a fan of after meeting him in the kids’ autograph line at last year’s event.

The absences of Machado and Schoop were noticed, and Showalter said Machado had a good reason for missing the event but the manager was “disappointed” in Schoop’s absence. Showalter said that he was told by Schoop’s agent that the All-Star second baseman wasn’t attending. Schoop is one of two arbitration-eligible players who have yet to agree to terms on a contract for this season.

“Obviously, we'd like to have all of our players here,” Duquette said. “We've had communication with our guys, and we tell them the importance of being here. The fans would like to see them. Jon, in particular — he was our player of the year. So we encourage our guys to be here, and we'd like for them to be here. … I know our fans are disappointed and the club is disappointed that all the players aren't here. But we've been in communication with them and we stressed the importance [to] them.”

Said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones: “I know that Manny and Schoop aren’t here due to family emergencies or whatever’s going on. I personally don’t know. But it’s obviously something that’s important to them, so I respect their decisions. But there’s still a lot people with a lot of eagerness to see a lot of their favorite players. I don’t think this is a Debbie Downer-type scenario. Obviously, they are main attractions due to the fact that they are really good players, but I don’t think that the people here are necessarily all disappointed. … They’re trying to make the best of it.”

The day kicked off with a question-and-answer session for season-ticket holders with Duquette and Showalter, and queries ranged from the root of the Orioles’ slow offseason — and the icy free-agent market around the game — to why the club can’t spend to keep Machado in Baltimore.

"That could be a philosophical issue, too," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson said. "Personally, I think it's a bit of a losing game to chase your own free agents around, but retrospectively, could we have given him more early on and have him for two or three more years? Maybe the best time would have been right after his second knee surgery, when maybe he was feeling unsure of his own future.

“But once a player gets close to free agency like Manny has, he's put in the work, he's established himself as the elite of the elite, you have to test free agency and see what's out there. Once you do that and teams start bidding against each other, sometimes the price becomes untenable. He was our guy. You couldn't have gotten a better six years out of anybody. He's an Oriole great. How old is Manny now? He's the youngest Oriole great in the history of the franchise."

One fan expressed that trading Machado now would be the only clear path to a promising future. And Duquette made it clear that the goal was a haul similar to the one the Atlanta Braves received for Jason Heyward going into his 2015 walk year — a controllable starter like Shelby Miller and a top-100 prospect — but the team never received anything comparable.

“I hope so,” Duquette said when asked later if Machado would be on the 2018 team. “Manny has had some great years for the Orioles. We like him on our ballclub. I like the double play when Manny throws it to Schoop and Schoop relays it to first base. That's one of the more entertaining things that we do, and those guys do it as good as anybody I've ever seen together.”

During the question-and-answer session, Parkville resident Kevin McHugh wanted to talk about pitching, and the fact that the Orioles have just two established starting pitchers in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. He expressed his frustration with the Orioles’ offseason, and pointed the finger at ownership instead of Duquette for the reason why the team is unlikely to contend for high-priced free-agent starting pitchers, which drew some reaction from the crowd.

“It’s about investing your money right and getting a return on your investment,” McHugh added. “If you go out and get an [Jake] Arrieta or a [Yu] Darvish, you’ll get an investment on it. It will boost the fans’ morale and also the players’ morale, and they’ll play for something more. That’s why I asked that.”

The Orioles know they still have plenty of offseason work to do, and Duquette said he hoped to have the rotation picture clearer by March 1, which is more than two weeks after pitchers and catchers report to spring training. And Showalter reminded fans not to put too much stock in what the club looks like in January, but what it looks like in April and later.

Asked about the Orioles’ slow offseason, Jones said, “I think that same question can be asked [to] every player in every organization right now … besides the Yankees. Yeah, besides them.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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