For more than a year, baseball has been buzzing about the Angels’ Mike Trout and Nationals’ Bryce Harper, two transcendent young talents, the sport’s answer to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Hit the pause button.
A third player soon might enter the conversation, if he doesn’t belong in it already.
Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, 20, is 11 months younger than Trout, and three months and 10 days older than Harper. Machado ranks ahead of both this season in the two most commonly used versions of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). And if he moves back to shortstop — a possibility once J.J. Hardy’s contract expires after the 2014 season — he could become more valuable still.
Trout and Harper are left fielders, though Trout currently is in center due to an injury to Peter Bourjos. Middle-of-the-diamond players carry greater weight, and Machado likely would be a top defender at short — he already is the best at third base, according to John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings at BillJames.com.
Machado rates a plus-nine, which means that in the Orioles’ first 32 games he made nine plays above what an average fielder would make, according to the video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions.
In addition, Machado is batting .314 with an .877 OPS, five homers and three steals in three attempts through Tuesday. Trout is batting .274 with an .846 OPS, five homers and five steals in six attempts. Harper boasts the gaudiest offensive numbers (.312 BA, 1.033 OPS, nine HRs), but Machado’s defense rates him the edge in WAR.
So, does Machado merit the same kind of acclaim as Trout and Harper? Not yet.
Trout’s 2012 season was perhaps the greatest by a rookie in major league history. Harper also proved himself in ’12 over nearly a full season, while Machado did not reach the majors until last Aug. 9.
The Orioles, though, certainly view Machado as the same kind of special player.
“Not only is he extremely talented, he has no fear of any situation and a great ‘feel’ for the game,” Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter speaks of Machado’s “alert eyes,” comparing him to a basketball player who, once or twice a game, hangs back after a basket and steals the in-bounds pass for another quick score.
If Machado sustains his excellence over a full season, the Trout and Harper comparisons will begin in earnest. If he moves back to shortstop, he eventually might be considered the most indispensable of the three.
At the very least, Machado appears ready to become the Orioles’ best position player since Cal Ripken Jr. — and maybe more.
TINKER, TAILOR, SHOWALTER, SPY
In another life, Showalter might have been a CIA operative. The Baltimore skipper relishes covert operations, and the conversion of Machado to third base at Double-A Bowie last summer qualifies as one of the manager’s and GM Dan Duquette’s better ploys.
It’s true that Machado played only two games at third base before the Orioles promoted him to the majors at that position. The move, however, had been secretly in the works for much longer.
Third-base coach Bobby Dickerson, then the team’s minor league infield coordinator, worked with Machado and three other Double-A infielders every day at third, well before the gates opened, for about two months.
The Orioles didn’t want word to get out, lest the pressure build on Machado, who was the third pick in the 2010 draft. They also did not want to alarm any of their major leaguers — Wilson Betemit was their primary third baseman at the time — or raise expectations among fans.
“I kind of put two and two together, kind of figured it out,” Machado recalls, “But it never hit me until I got the call that I was going to be playing third base.”
Machado’s rapid adjustment to third still qualifies as stunning, even if he had a bigger head start than the Orioles initially acknowledged. Practicing a position is not the same as playing it in a game.
CAN’T BLOCK A TRADE, DOESN’T WANT TO
White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy had a full no-trade clause from 2008 to ’10 and a partial no-trade in ’11 and ’12. His new contract, however, does not include any no-trade protection.
Peavy says he didn’t want any.
“I told (GM) Rick Hahn that if he didn’t trade me before spring training was over, that was good enough for me,” Peavy says.
Peavy, who turns 32 on May 31, agreed to a two-year, $29 million extension last Oct. 31. He says he wouldn’t mind being traded if it meant going to a team with a better chance of winning the World Series.
“I’ve got one agenda left in baseball, and that’s to be a champion,” Peavy says. “Going into free agency, I wanted to go somewhere where you’re wanted, where you’re part of a team where the goal is to win. I know every team says that is their goal, but you truly have to look at the front office and see if that is played out to the fullest.
“Me getting traded would mean to me that our team isn’t where it needs to be. If we were in contention to win a championship, I would feel like I would be a part of that going forward.
“I will go play anywhere to win. If you’re getting traded and somebody is taking you on, they’re taking you on to get to the playoffs and win it. I have no problem with not having a no-trade.”
Peavy, who returns to the mound against the Mets on Wednesday night after missing one start due to back spasms, is 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA.
SIGNED, SEALED AND DELIVERING
Left-hander Madison Bumgarner’s five-year, $35 million extension with the Giants could turn out to be one of the biggest bargains in the sport.
Bumgarner, who doesn’t turn 24 until Aug. 1, is younger than both the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg and Mets’ Matt Harvey. Bumgarner is also considerably more accomplished, a two-time World Series champion who has pitched 15 scoreless innings in the Series and is 39-31 lifetime with a 3.13 ERA in regular-season play.
The scary part is, Bumgarner is still getting better.
Giants people say he has simplified his mechanics, allowing him to better repeat his delivery, and developed more consistent game plans, increasing his confidence. His ERA after six starts was 1.55 before a rocky outing against the Phillies on Monday raised it to 2.31.
Clearly, the Giants were wise to lock up Bumgarner, even though he would not have been a free agent until after the 2016 season. His five-year guarantee will increase to $40 million if he qualifies as a Super Two player after this season. His deal also includes $12 million club options for 2018 and ’19.
UBALDO COMING AROUND?
The Indians, winners of eight of their last nine games (through Tuesday), are pretty much as advertised — a team featuring an offense that entered Tuesday ranked third in the AL in runs per game, and a rotation that ranked 10th with a 4.85 ERA.
Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez still looms as a linchpin for the rotation, and manager Terry Francona points to the pitcher’s last three starts as evidence that he might be turning a corner.
In those three starts — against the Astros, Royals and Athletics — Jimenez is 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA, 16 strikeouts and six walks in 17 2/3 innings.
“It all revolves around him being direct to the plate,” Francona says. “He’s good when he strides and lands straight to the plate. He’s crisp, he’s downhill, his fastball has life. When he opens up — and more often than not it’s out of the stretch — his ball is flat, he loses his delivery and he gets into trouble.”
Jimenez’s next start is Saturday in Detroit against Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
AROUND THE HORN
• Francona loves the willingness of veterans such as Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Mike Aviles to move between multiple positions without complaint. He says of the effervescent Swisher, “Just when it seems you need a little encouragement, he’s standing right there.”
• Designated hitter Adam Dunn on the White Sox, who are last in the AL in runs per game (3.35), last in on-base percentage (.276) and next-to-last in slugging (.368): “I’ve never seen anything like it. There literally is not one guy swinging the bat good. It’s embarrassing.”
• Best player in the Blue Jays-Marlins blockbuster? Outside of catcher John Buck, who later went to the Mets in the R.A. Dickey trade, it’s Marlins Class A right-hander Anthony DeSclafani, who has a 0.70 ERA in six starts for Jupiter in the Florida State League. Righty Justin Nicolino, the more celebrated pitching prospect obtained by the Marlins, has a 4.25 ERA.
• Right-hander Chris Bootcheck, currently pitching for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, leads the International League with a 0.60 ERA after five starts. Bootcheck, 34, is throwing five pitches for strikes (fastball, cutter, curveball, slider, changeup). A former first-round pick of the Angels, he could surface with the Yankees at some point.
• And finally, one more word about Machado’s defense. Through Monday, the only defenders in the game with better plus-minus ratings were Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez and Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons (plus-14), Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki (plus-13) and Marlins left fielder Juan Pierre and Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock (plus-12).