When he charges onto the infield grass, makes that barehanded pickup and throws a rocket to first, Manny Machado reminds Orioles fans of a superstar third baseman of yesteryear.
When he breaks out of the batter's box on a liner into the gap and hits first base in full stride on his way to another double, Machado shows old-school hustle.
And when he quietly strolls through clubhouse, proudly wearing his "Hakuna Machado" T-shirt while nodding to teammates, and, occasionally, breaking out an infectious smile, he flashes a necessary balance of confidence and respect.
So where are the reminders that this kid is 20? Or that he was in Double-A Bowie this time last year and in a Miami high school three years ago?
"He's definitely mature for a 20-year-old," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "But he's a baseball player; he wants to play this game for a long time. And you can see that."
Since being recalled in August to fill a void at third base — a position he played in only two games in the minors — Machado has exceeded expectations.
He has made plays at the hot corner that even the most hardened Orioles fans acknowledge are reminiscent of those made by Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. He has hit like a seasoned vet, scratching out a .262 average in 51 games as a rookie before exploding this season. He is batting .331 in 2013 and .405 with 12 multi-hit performances in his past 19 games.
"I'm just having fun doing something I've dreamed about my whole life," said Machado, the third pick overall in the 2010 amateur draft. "I'm here on the big stage and I just enjoy the moment. I don't put pressure on myself. Because that's when you just dig yourself into a hole."
He has the right attitude, tremendous skills and fits in superbly with his teammates.
Now, the burning question is: How does he compare with the sport's elite young players — specifically, the reigning Rookies of the Year Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper?
"I really don't feel like you have to compare them," Wieters said. "I think you can just say they are three great players who are real young and, if they continue to improve, are going to be real special in this game for a long time."
Compare and contrast
Baseball is about obvious as well as incongruous comparisons — eras, players, positions, apples, oranges, cantaloupes — and right now a hot topic is whether Machado is as good as Trout, who nearly won the American League Most Valuable Player as a 20-year-old, and Harper, who was a Sports Illustrated can't-miss cover boy at age 16.
Machado "doesn't belong, for the moment, in the Trout/Harper discussions, because he just hasn't accomplished as much as what those two guys have so far," ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian said. "Last year — given what they did — was historic for Trout and for Harper, and it was not for Manny. But probably because he was not called up earlier in the year."
Machado has played just 89 games as a big leaguer. Harper has been in 173. Trout, 21, has appeared in 216. The trio's numbers through its first 89 MLB games, though, are remarkably similar. Machado actually has driven in more runs, hit for a higher average (albeit one point higher than Trout at .294) and tied Trout for homers (12, Harper had 10 in his first 89 games).
"Now, if you are discussing the 'best young players in the game' list, it is Harper, Trout and Machado leading that discussion," Kurkjian said. "You have to take in account that, last year, this kid was playing out of position, and when [Machado] was called up he was in a pennant race the second he got there. So he is in that discussion."
Five major league scouts — three from the National League, two from the American League and none from Washington, Baltimore or Los Angeles — were asked this week to rank those players in order of preference if they could select just one to build a club around.
"That's like asking me which Charlie's Angel I'd most want," one veteran scout quipped. "All three are so very good, young, talented and play the game the right way. If I got any of the three as a consolation prize, I wouldn't be disappointed."
Two scouts ranked the order as Harper, Trout and Machado; two had it Trout, Machado and Harper and one ranked it Harper, Machado and Trout. One scout said he'd take the Boston Red Sox's shortstop prospect, 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts, third, a spot ahead of Machado.
Other names that were mentioned included the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, 23; Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte, 24; and St. Louis Cardinals' Oscar Taveras, 20. But four of the five scouts polled said there is clearly a Big Three (with Machado included).
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."
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.'"
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