Buck Showalter talks about giving Manny Machado a new challenge as shortstop. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Manny Machado acknowledges there were some fleeting moments this offseason when he thought he might have played his final game for the Orioles as trade rumors swirled around him.
Even as Machado’s equipment bag was unpacked Saturday morning as he arrived for spring training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, there’s no guarantee he remains in an Orioles uniform through the season.
“Hopefully I’m here all year and we’re in the World Series,” Machado said. “That would be awesome. It crossed my mind a little bit when the trade talks were going that I might not be able to see these guys again … see my coaches and see the guys that I’ve known for the last seven years. At one point, it was kind of a little sad.”
Machado arrived in Sarasota on Saturday morning for his final season before he reaches free agency with a new hairstyle, a nice tan and a smile. Once he entered the Orioles clubhouse, Machado drew the entire room’s attention. He went from locker to locker shaking hands and giving hugs to his teammates.
“Thank God nothing went down and I was able to come back and see my guys that I’ve been with for seven years,” Machado said. “It’s just going to be a great experience that I went through at that time – a learning experience this whole offseason – that I’m putting in the back of my mind going forward getting ready for this year.”
Catch him while you can. The Orioles spent the offseason gauging Machado’s trade value, seeking the kind of offer the Atlanta Braves received for Jason Heyward going into his final season before free agency. But they didn’t receive an offer that was to the liking of all levels of the organization.
“I knew from the get-go, the business part of it,” Machado said. “They are [trying to] get the best for the team, they were just trying to look out there to see my value, my worth. I knew that they still wanted me here and I was a big key to the success we are going to have here. So, I’m here to be an Oriole and do what I’ve got to do to help this team win.”
Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who also reported Saturday, didn’t want to think about the possibility of losing Machado.
“To be honest with you, late in the year, me and Manny talked after that. I didn’t want to listen to it because I don’t want it to happen,” Schoop said. “I want him to be here the whole year so we can win a championship together.”
Though the likelihood of Machado being an Oriole beyond this season diminishes by the day, the three-time All-Star said he hopes he can remain in Baltimore long-term.
“I hope, everybody hopes,” he said. “Obviously, this is the only organization I’ve ever played for and the only organization I know, so I could definitely stay here, play for this organization, play for the crowd, play for the fans. This is all I know. It’s a great organization that I’ve always played for and gave me an opportunity to come up here and play in the big leagues. But at the same time, there are some things that are out of my jurisdiction, out of my hands. What I can do is go out there and give them the best season I can and see what happens.”
Anointed the team’s new starting shortstop by manager Buck Showalter last month at FanFest, Machado will return to his original position with the departure of veteran J.J. Hardy. The Orioles claim moving Machado from third base, where he’s won two Gold Glove Awards and a Platinum Glove, to shortstop makes the club better defensively, even though switching Machado with Tim Beckham also puts both players at positions where they don’t have extensive major league experience.
Moving to shortstop might best benefit the Orioles in 2018, but a successful transition to the most important position in the infield would also boost Machado’s value next offseason as he and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper — both reaching free agency at age 26 — will challenge New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract for the largest deal in major league history.
However, Machado said the move is more based in his heart. He was drafted as a shortstop and he moved through the Orioles minor league system as a shortstop, playing there until the major league team needed him to fill a hole at third when being called up in August 2012. He said he discussed a future move to shortstop with Showalter last season, and once it became clear the Orioles weren’t picking up Hardy’s $14 million club option, the move made sense to all parties.
“It’s where my heart has always been,” Machado said. “It’s my natural position. That’s where I think I can be the best at what I’m worth there. It’s not really something about — I know a lot of the talk has been, ‘Oh, is he going to be worth more there? More money.’ It’s not about the money. It’s not about going out there and signing a 20-year deal.
“This is where my heart has always been. This is what I want to do. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. This is what I came into this world to do, was to play shortstop at the big league level. Finally Buck and the Baltimore organization are giving me the opportunity to go out there and do what I can at that position and show myself. That’s been my dream all along. I’m just really looking forward to it.”
Machado worked out at shortstop during spring training last year in preparation for the World Baseball Classic, but he said he prepared for this season differently to handle the grind of playing shortstop for a full 162-game season, focused more on adding flexibility than strength.
“This year I completely changed it and did a lot more [plyometrics] and less heavy lifting and a lot more resistance stuff and flexibility,” Machado said. “This game’s about playing 162 games, not just three months or four months out of the year. I did change a lot and I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing in the offseason to now.”
Machado will enter the season with 49 major league starts at shortstop, playing there in 2015 and 2016 while Hardy was injured. That experience will benefit him moving forward.
“I knew what I had to go into the offseason to do. I knew what I had to do,” Machado said. “I had to get flexible and stay as flexible as possible and keep my range of motion, so I kind of changed my workout to more flexibility, more massages, more stretching. At the same time, you can’t lose all the strength, so doing a lot of band work just to get ready to withstand that grind.”
Showalter likes that playing shortstop will offer Machado a new challenge in 2018. He’s said in the past that Machado sometimes makes third base look too easy, and sometimes he almost looks bored there, often looking into the stands. But playing shortstop — and having to quarterback the entire infield — will force Machado to be more engaged, something Showalter predicted could lead to a monster season.
“Everything that could points that way,” Showalter said. “He’s finally getting back to his natural position after having J.J. and obviously Manny’s mature enough to know what this year means not only to him career-wise but to the Orioles. He’s going to bridge a gap with both of those. Sometimes all the stars are aligned and it doesn’t work out. I don’t know. But I can tell you from one side of it, there’s a lot of things pointing up.
“I think the challenges of playing major league shortstop is up his alley for this year. … He needs a new challenge I think. I think he prospers off that. I think he really is engaged, not that he got bored at third base, but I feel good that he had a month or so for us at shortstop to really remind him, and [infield coach Bobby Dickerson’s] showing him some of the tape and been talking to him about the total engagement you need to have at shortstop in order to play that position again. He was a shortstop that we moved to third base because we had one of the best shortstops in the game. I think anybody we play at third base is not going to be Manny. Nobody. I mean nobody, and I’ve seen them all. There’s some really good ones, but he’s the best one. Of course I’m biased. But he has a chance to be that same guy at shortstop. He’s capable of making plays that nobody else will be able to make there.”
Machado said he sees his long-term future at shortstop as well, and wants to play there in 2019 and beyond, whether it is in Baltimore — which seems unlikely since there have been no recent extension discussions with the Orioles — or elsewhere.
“Once I do it this year, it’s not something that’s just switching off,” Machado said. “I’m making the transition. Hopefully, I want to stay there and continue doing it. This is where my heart has always been [and I’m] finally getting an opportunity to do it for a full season. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully I can continue playing it for a long time.”