Trading Manny Machado a real consideration for Orioles

The Orioles arrived at baseball’s winter meetings seeking clarity on Manny Machado’s future with the club, and less than two full days into the offseason’s annual rumor-fest, the team is closer than ever before to entertaining the possibility of trading their best homegrown talent in years before he reaches free agency at the end of the 2018 season.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette confirmed that the team took meetings Tuesday with clubs interested in acquiring Machado this offseason. And Duquette indicated that the interest in Machado — one of just four players who have more than 100 homers and 17 wins above replacement over the past three seasons – is robust and the Orioles will now indulge in trade discussions, something Duquette had no interest in earlier this offseason.

“There’s a lot of interest in Manny and a couple of clubs requested a meeting so we met with a couple of clubs on that issue specifically and we’re going to continue to explore the market and see where it takes us,” Duquette said. “I like Manny on our club. He’s a good player. He does a lot of things to help the club win. I think when you make a deal, you have to look at how that’s going to strengthen your club and the important thing when you make a deal is knowing what you’re going to give up and what you’re going to give back.”

If they trade Machado, the Orioles would be seeking at least two cost-controllable major league starters, which could be a challenge even for a talent such as Machado because he is just a one-year rental. There is a provision that would allow a window for a potential trade partner to negotiate a long-term contract with a player before the deal goes through, but Duquette said that possibility with Machado hasn’t been discussed with any team.

“My experience with those is they don’t generally work out that well, but there’s a window that allows that under the basic agreement,” Duquette said.

Duquette’s comments Tuesday are a remarkable shift in the team’s mentality heading into the offseason. The Orioles had been focused on reloading for another run at the postseason in 2018 before key players such as Machado, closer Zach Britton, center fielder Adam Jones and setup man Brad Brach reach free agency after next season and before Duquette and manager Buck Showalter complete the final year of their contracts.

However, dealing a popular homegrown player such as Machado — especially without making a substantial attempt at signing him to a long-term extension — would be a tough sell to a fan base energized by recent success that fears a return to the dark ages of 14 straight losing seasons.

“I don’t know if we need to speculate about that,” Duquette said. “Manny is an Oriole. I really don’t think you need to speculate about that. If something happens and we have a trade, of course we’re going to address the issues. I’ve said all along this is an important year for the Orioles in a lot of different areas.”

A sudden wrinkle is Machado’s desire to move to shortstop next year. Though it seems out of the blue, according to an industry source, Machado had a meeting with Orioles manager Buck Showalter near the end of last season when he made his wish to play shortstop in 2018 clear.

Showalter met with the media Tuesday at the winter meetings and said Machado’s desire to play shortstop isn’t new, but he said the timing wasn’t right previously because J.J. Hardy — another Gold Glove-caliber defender — was at shortstop. Hardy is a free agent, and Duquette acquired Tim Beckham at the nonwaiver trade deadline last season to man the position for the next three seasons.

“Always has, since the day he signed,” Showalter said of Machado’s wish to play shortstop. “I think out of his respect for J.J. Hardy — and one of the reasons why we brought Jonathan [Schoop] and him up early is because the chance to play alongside J.J. and really jump-start their development in a lot of areas.

“Manny has not only respect for J.J. but also for Tim Beckham and other people. To say that Manny and I haven't had conversations about it over the years, I wouldn't be truthful. … Obviously, we're not there yet, but … I found that players need to know about that, not February 15 or March 15. They need to know about it [earlier]. Manny's capable of playing both real well. And I think so is Tim.”

Machado, 25, came up through the Orioles system as a shortstop, but made an immediate transition to third base when he was first called up in August 2012. Since then, he’s won the Gold Glove Award twice and an American League Platinum Glove Award at the position. His major league experience at shortstop is limited, having made just 49 starts there — 43 of them in 2016 when he filled in for an injured Hardy. In his brief audition at shortstop, Machado showed he could handle the position, but had yet to display the elite level that made him one of the top defenders at third base.

“Manny and I have certainly talked privately about it. I know with him having the experience [at shortstop] in the big leagues, he has a respect for what it takes to play there in the major leagues,” Showalter said. “It was a different challenge for him, but he’s capable.”

Some in the organization aren’t sold on Beckham’s defense at shortstop — though his desire to become a better defender was clear from the time he was acquired — believing he’d best be used as a super-utility player who would play regularly throughout the infield and outfield.

On Tuesday, Showalter was not yet ready to commit to Machado playing shortstop if still with the club in 2018. Asked what will determine whether Machado or Beckham will play shortstop, Showalter joked, “Next 48 hours.”

“No. Listen, you know, I've got a real gut feeling about how it's going to work out, but I want to make sure we cover all the bases before whatever direction we go in,” the Orioles manager said. “It's good to have the strength there for those two guys, guys that are going to play shortstop, and it's a good problem to have.”

Speaking to The Baltimore Sun at OriolesREACH Holiday Party at Dave & Busters at Arundel Mills, Beckham said Machado potentially moving to shortstop was out of his hands.

“Any ballclub in major league baseball would be better with Manny Machado on their team,” Beckham said. “He's a great player, hell of a guy. As far as him moving over to shortstop, that's out of my [view]. That's something I don't even need to touch on. That's a front-office decision.

“If that's what he wants to do, he's going to talk to the front office about it. That's out of my reach. … I'm looking forward to next season.”

If the Orioles do move Machado to shortstop, there’s no clear heir at third base. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop played 17 games there in 2014 when Machado was injured, and a move there would likely involve Beckham shifting to second base, where he played before being dealt by the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles moved one of their top hitting prospects, Ryan Mountcastle, from shortstop to third base last season, but his transition is still a work in progress.

However, this development has less to do with Beckham or Schoop, or even Machado’s desire to play shortstop, than with the Orioles’ asleep-at-the-wheel approach over several years that hasn’t ensured that Machado — one of the best players to wear an Orioles uniform — will remain with the club long term.

How the Orioles will handle the latest development with Machado will be interesting. They haven’t truly engaged Machado in extension talks over the past three years — and they haven’t initiated any so far at this week’s meetings, though Duquette said Tuesday that an extension is still “under consideration.” And now Machado has one year until he can test the free-agent market at the age of 26. He will command a commitment that could potentially exceed Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325 million deal, and a move to shortstop would create an even bigger free-agent market for Machado one year from now.

Meanwhile, it could also back the Orioles into a corner where they are forced to move Machado if they don’t shift him to shortstop. The club is in desperate need for controllable big league starting pitching, and Machado is likely the only trade chip that can get them that, even as a one-year rental. Any hope that the Orioles might have of retaining Machado long term — as minuscule as it seems — would be thwarted if he isn’t allowed to play where he wants. He’ll have the opportunity to pick his place to play shortstop next offseason.

For an Orioles organization that has few concrete plans for the future, seeking their best possible haul for Machado is tempting.

Whether or not Machado is ultimately dealt, Duquette wouldn’t acknowledge that the Orioles might be entering a rebuild, even with the division-rival New York Yankees having bulked up with the acquisition of Stanton, the 2017 National League Most Valuable Player, and the Boston Red Sox positioning themselves to counter that with a big move of their own.

“I think it’s an important year for the Orioles in a lot of aspects,” Duquette said. “We’ve had a very competitive team and we’ve had a contending team. We’ve been able to make the playoffs and our challenge is significant, no doubt about that. But if we can add the right pitching and make the right move and get our team to jell, we can still compete. The pennant is not won in December and the playoff spots are not defined in December either. Yeah, we have a lot of work to do, all right? Yeah, the rich got richer. Some of the teams in our division, they got better. We haven’t completed our offseason work, but we are in the process.”

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article from Hanover.

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