With a wide smile and a hint of bravado, Manny Machado says mostly all the right things about his baseball-playing future.
The Orioles' 19-year-old phenom doesn't have a timetable for when he'll make the majors, though he'd like it to be sooner rather than later.
He says he's not concerned with whether he'll return to the Carolina League champion Frederick Keys for a second season or start one step closer to the majors at Double-A Bowie this year — that's a decision made by management, not a player, Machado says adeptly.
Yes, Machado can sing the party line perfectly. But if you want to get his nose slightly out of joint, if you want to see the fire flicker in those deep brown eyes, ask Machado what position he expects to play in the majors.
There's only one answer. No room for negotiation:
"I want to play short. There's those rumors around, with my size, but I'm trying to prove to everybody that I can play shortstop," said Machado, who is listed as 6 feet 2, 180 pounds. "I've always hit. I am going to hit. Hitting is just natural to me, so I really focus on my defensive work."
When the Orioles selected Machado out of a Miami high school with the third pick of the 2010 draft, it was to be their shortstop of the future. There have been no serious internal talks of moving Machado to third base at this time.
But, frankly, the whispers from scouts and prospect evaluators are inevitable since Machado is big and will only get bigger, surely putting on more muscle as his body matures.
At, say, 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, with a cannon arm and a powerful bat, Machado profiles as a prototype big league third baseman. Many big shortstops, such as Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. and New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, to whom Machado is often compared, eventually made the switch to third in their careers.
It all makes sense. Except it is not what Machado wants — now or in the future.
"I just love [shortstop]. I've always played the position," Machado said. "I think I can play it, so I'm just going out to prove to everyone I can."
Amen, say the Orioles.
"I am glad he wants to stay on short," said former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who worked closely with Machado in the past year. "And you know what that means? If all the sudden somebody's talking about him possibly being a third baseman or whatever, that's going to make him work harder to stay at short. That's a good thing."
When Machado first signed with the Orioles, Bordick and the organization's minor league infield coordinator, Bobby Dickerson, immediately noticed something about him that might hamper his development as a shortstop:
Long, spindly legs.
"I don't know if he grew real fast or what, but the kid looked like a pony when we first got him," Bordick said. "His legs were kind of knock-kneed."
To be an effective shortstop at the major league level, a player must have almost superhuman leg strength. It's needed for that quick burst into the hole, for the plant-and-throw, for the pivot. A shortstop's range, too, is dependent on powerful legs.
"One of the doubts early when I first saw him — because he was so tall in his legs, he was straight-legged — was: Would the range come? But now I see him starting to drive [his legs]," Dickerson said. "If you can picture a sprinter when he comes out of the gate, he has a long stride. It's low to the ground, and it is a long stride … He drives himself into his legs. And that first step covers a lot of ground."
So the legs are strengthening, the style is developing and the physical tools are already in place. The other crucial ingredient is there, too, according to his coaches.
Machado doesn't push back during instruction, a tendency that seems pre-destined with top picks. Instead, he pays attention when Dickerson tells him to check out video of the 6-foot-4 Ripken and watch how he widened his defensive stance and got low when fielding grounders.
And Machado listens when Bordick explains to him that confidence and talent can get him only so far. That it is dedication, preparation and a desire to play his best at all times that will set Machado apart.
"When they won the playoffs in Frederick, he told me, 'Man, that was a great experience, I've never felt so locked in. Every game meant something, every pitch meant something,'" Bordick recalled. "And I said, 'Buddy, that's the way it is supposed to be in the big leagues. That's the way it is supposed to be every game. You are a professional now. That's the way you have to approach it.' And I think he really took that to heart. That's the way he is approaching the game now."
Orioles starting shortstopJ.J. Hardyhasn't seen the kid play much, but he already has a feel for Machado's personality. Machado has made a point of seeking out Hardy, of asking the veteran questions, of saying hello every time they walk past each other.
"He is very respectful. And he is going to be good," said Hardy, who may one day be pushed to third to make room for Machado. "I mean, he is already good and you can tell that with the talent and everything. But he is a guy that wants to learn and wants to be as good as he possibly can. I think he is everything that everyone wants him to be."
That's the other thing — besides those once-spindly legs — that strikes Dickerson when he thinks about Machado. He has the confidence to succeed meshed with the desire to be better.
"He is a special kid that has the approach of a 30th-round draft choice trying to prove himself, which is nice when you see a talent with the makeup," Dickerson said. "I've been doing it since 1993 as a roving guy doing infield play, and he could be the best guy I have had, for sure. He has got hands, he's got arm strength. He's got understanding of the game. It's just making sure he stays on that humble track."
There are times when Machado lets his desire and youth get the better of his words. When he faced Boston Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett this spring, Machado made a point that "hopefully, I will be seeing him soon."
But in the next breath, he'll talk about how much he has to learn, and how much Dickerson and Bordick have helped him.
"They have taken me under their wings and forced me to do things just to get better and just push me to the next level I should be at," Machado said.
Machado did not get an official roster invitation to big league spring training this year, but he has spent time in camp, soaking up what he can. He has had four hits in 19 at-bats in big-league exhibition games and made at least one impressive defensive play.
Yet the Orioles aren't planning to rush Machado despite the fact that most prospect gurus consider him one of the top 10 players in all the minors. It wouldn't be a surprise if he started again at High-A Frederick. Or if he doesn't get to the big leagues until late in 2013 or early in 2014 — which is Hardy's final year under club contract.
The Orioles just want Machado to be ready when he does arrive in Baltimore.
And the expectation is that he will make that debut — and continue on — as a shortstop.
"That decision will be made by his play in the long run. The general manager or the manager, they will make decisions on that also," Dickerson said. "But as far as I can see as an infield coach, watching him and looking at what he brings every day, there is no reason he can't play shortstop.
"He should be able to play there. And stay there."
twitter.com/danconnollysunCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun