Both scouts who ranked Machado second and Trout first said they would flip-flop the two if Machado returned to his natural position of shortstop and played it as well as he plays third.

"If Machado moves back to shortstop and shows he can continue to play the position, I would take him No. 1 due to the fact it is a prime position and I feel he is going to be the best hitter of the three," one scout said. "To be honest, I figured all this out with a coin toss."

For now, third base is Machado's while Gold Glove winner J.J. Hardy is manning shortstop.

"I'm not going to lie to you. It's in my heart to play short," Machado said. "But I'm also playing third now and I'm enjoying every single moment of it. Every game I play out there, I thank God and I pray that I stay healthy and keep playing baseball, whatever position it may be."

Under pressure

The next challenge is to handle the microscope that comes with the accolades. Perhaps no one knows those inherent pratfalls better than Kansas City Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who made his debut in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves at 21. Francoeur batted .360 in his first 37 games, prompting Sports Illustrated to put him on its cover with the headline, "The Natural," and the subhead, "Can anyone be this good?"

Eight years later, Francoeur is an everyday player, but hasn't come close to meeting those lofty expectations. He said he, like Machado, was lucky to join a winning team with a solid support system of quality players such as Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. Young players need to avoid putting too much pressure on themselves.

"It's hard, especially when everyone talks about you," Francoeur said. "But he's got Adam [Jones] and Chris [Davis] and Nick [Markakis] and those guys to help him and help take the pressure off of him from being the guy. I think if he just does what he can do, he's going to be just fine."

Francoeur said he believes it is premature — and unfair — to talk about any of the early 20-somethings as superstars, but Machado is in a good position because he hasn't been as hyped as the other two.

"It's not that he's flying under the radar. But those guys get the pub," Francoeur said. "And if he goes out there and plays like he can, he'll get his due."

One of the most interesting aspects of the potential "Big Three" is that there is admiration and not jealousy among the trio. Trout and Machado played against each other for the first time earlier this month in Anaheim and both came away impressed.

"He's very humble. He's a cool kid, talked to him before a game," Trout said. "He's one of those guys who's always hustling and trying do anything he can to help his team."

Said Machado about Trout: "Tremendous athlete, great player and I've heard he is a great teammate as well. So, the guy is a beast."

Machado and Harper were teammates and roommates on Team USA's under-18 squad. They've remained friends as their pro careers have taken off.

"He is a hell of a guy," Machado said of Harper. "I don't think there is anybody that plays harder than him out there."

Harper returned the praise: "He's an unbelievable person. He's a great player, everybody knows that. Unbelievable third baseman and he can rake. He's the type of guy who's going to be around for a long time. And the Orioles should be happy they've got a guy like that."

Friendships aside, whom would Machado choose if he could build a team around one player?

"Obviously, you are going to pick yourself. You want to build your team around yourself," he said. "But I'd definitely want to have Trout and Harper on my team. I'd put them in there and all three of us could play on one team. That'd be great."

For now, baseball fans will have to enjoy watching the three of them play separately.

"We are going to tell our grandkids one day that we saw Harper, Trout and Machado all play when they were 20 years old," Kurkjian said. "And they are going to say, 'Wow. What was that like?'

"And we'll say, 'Breathtaking.'"

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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