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25 today, Orioles' Manny Machado still has bright future despite frustrating present

Orioles third baseman Manny Machado will celebrate his 25th birthday today, a milestone made more significant by what he's already accomplished on a baseball field.

In an era of young stars making an impact far earlier than their predecessors, few have produced as much as Machado has before turning 25. Merely mention that he hasn't turned 25 yet and eyes open wider in the Orioles clubhouse.

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Even in a down season during which he has struggled to perform consistently at the plate, that fact isn't lost on those who have been around for his six impactful major league seasons.

"Maybe it's because he's been the best player in baseball, or one of them, for the last few years now, and he's done all that before he's 25 years old," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "But if he has the same second half as he had the first half, he'll end up with 30-something homers and 80-90 RBIs. That's a pretty damn good year for anybody else in the big leagues. And for him, it's a down year. You can look at it however you want, but he's accomplished a lot before the age of 25."

The raw numbers — 121 home runs, 288 extra-base hits, 352 RBIs and 391 runs scored — combined with his habit of making the remarkable look routine on defense have earned him plenty of plaudits. A three-time All-Star, Machado won the Platinum Glove award as the American League's best fielder in 2013 and has twice finished in the top five of Most Valuable Player voting.

Combine some of his accomplishments and he is in rare company. Seven other players have over 120 home runs, 150 doubles and 30 stolen bases before age 25. Among them, according to Baseball-Reference.com, are Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, Machado's idol, Alex Rodriguez, and Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.

All debuted before their age-20 seasons, but Machado played the fewest games (686) by a wide margin, because of his knee surgeries.

Only this year isn't on pace with the career he'd been building before it. When healthy, he has posted six wins above replacement (WAR) or more in his three full seasons, no matter which calculation you use. His defense has been well above average, as has his bat.

The defense is still strong this year, but he has been mired in a season-long slump. His .215 batting average entering Wednesday night's game was 81st out of 87 qualifiers in the AL.

His .705 OPS was 75th. With 16 doubles and 16 home runs with 41 RBIs, he has been a bit more productive than those rankings would suggest, but not at his previous levels. By almost any measure, one of the game's brightest stars has left everyone wanting more.

The only year comparable would be his 2014 season, which was shortened on the front and back end by knee surgeries. Injury could be to blame this year, though no one will say as much. He mentioned Tuesday that he and second baseman Jonathan Schoop are "always getting hurt" as part of a team dealing with "little things nagging" all over the roster. Machado missed some time in June with a wrist sprain, and wrists are perilously sensitive for hitters.

Simple bad luck could also be to blame. His batting average on balls in play of .222 is well down from his career mark of .301. He's hitting the ball harder more frequently than ever before, and based on his Statcast batted-ball profile, should have a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .346, as opposed to his actual one of .305. Only three players have a higher difference between the two than Machado, according to data from Baseball Savant.

But overall, he has been sacrificing the all-fields approach that helped him develop easy power to every portion of the field in favor of a bigger swing geared more toward hitting the ball for more power.

The results have been the opposite, and a detriment to his whole season. Instead of a season that stayed on the star-bound trajectory that his career had been on, he's not participating in the All-Star Game in his native Miami next week, the first time he hasn't been selected when he has played the full first half of the season.

None of this does much in the mind of those around him to dim the bright prospects of his future. He and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who himself has had some inexplicable down seasons on his way to superstardom, are due for record-smashing free-agent contracts after the 2018 season.

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Manager Buck Showalter said it's frustrating for everyone to watch just because they know what Machado is capable of, but the manager has also said countless times this year that some players simply have down seasons and never snap out of it.

"Manny's a pretty humble guy, with humble beginnings," Showalter said. "It's not like this game, he needs humbling in it. That's not the case at all. But the things that don't break you completely, in the long run, they're kind of good for you. But you don't want them to last very long.

"He's a lot stronger mentally than people think, but this game will put you on your heels, too. Not that he needed that, either, but it reminds everybody that I don't care how talented you are, there's some things like that you're going to go through — like this."

Said Schoop, his close friend: "I think this is like a learning year. You learn from the struggling he's going through, but he's going to get out of it soon. Then when he starts getting hot again, watch out. Then, nobody can get him out. But it's a struggle that he's going through that will make him better in the long term."

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