Machado part of win-now O’s strategy

OK, I’ve yet to hear a sufficient explanation for why Manny Machado started only two games at third base in Double-A before the Baltimore Orioles promoted him to play that position in the majors.

One club official said the team did not want to alarm the major league third basemen, Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds (poor babies). Another said the team didn’t want to put too much on Machado, who already was taking grounders at third during the day. (Sure, so let’s force-feed him in the majors!)

There’s no getting around it: The promotion of Machado was a reach, a quick fix instead of the culmination of a long-term development plan. But you know what? It was the right thing to do, and not simply because of Machado’s stunning performance in the smallest of samples: his first four major league games.

Machado, who turned 20 on July 6, became the first player in modern history to hit two homers and a triple in his first two games and the first 20-year-old since at least 1918 to hit three home runs in his first four. He handled his first 11 chances at third base without incident — and, along with the Boston Red Sox’s Adrian Gonzalez, was chosen American League co-Player of the Week.

The lesson is clear, and we’ve seen it hammered home this season by Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and now Machado: Talent plays. The gifted figure it out. And shame on any team that holds back its best prospects, particularly for financial reasons, if those players can make a difference in the only thing that matters: winning games.

The Orioles, if the season had ended Sunday, would have qualified for the postseason as the second wild card. Yet, no one will confuse them with the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers. The Orioles’ minus-49 run differential was the fourth worst in the AL, and their 4.72 rotation ERA was the sixth worst. They are a team on the edge, a team that is borderline lucky, a team that needs to take an occasional risk.

Hello, Machado.

His sudden position change was by far the biggest question raised by his promotion. Yes, Cal Ripken Jr. also began his Orioles career at third base, but that was after playing more third than short in the minors. The more relevant precedents for Machado actually are two current stars, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton.

Cabrera was 20 when the then-Florida Marlins promoted him to be their left fielder on June 20, 2003. At the time, he had played only three games in left at Double-A. Does anyone remember? Should anyone care? Cabrera made a successful transition from third base and helped the Marlins win the ’03 World Series.

Upton, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2005 draft, was a shortstop in high school before the Arizona Diamondbacks moved him to center field in the minors. Same story: The D-backs promoted him to play right field on Aug. 2, 2007, even though he was 19, even though he had played only eight games at the position at Double-A. Again, it worked out OK.

This is not to suggest Machado is the next Cabrera or Upton, though he might be. Each player is different and must be judged on his own merits. Still, no one should be surprised if the Orioles take the logical next step and promote right-hander Dylan Bundy, 19, to pitch out of their bullpen in September. The O’s are operating under the same premise that the Oakland Athletics did when they recently promoted their top pitching prospect, right-hander Dan Straily. Why waste bullets in the minor leagues?

In the case of Machado, it wasn’t as if the Orioles had great options at third. They were unable to trade for San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley before the July 31 nonwaiver deadline. Betemit can’t hit lefties. Reynolds is abysmal in the field. Machado won’t be — can’t be — worse.

Sure, Machado had played shortstop his whole life. But he began taking grounders at third at the end of May, performed well on a larger stage at short in the Futures Game, exceeded 400 at-bats — the preferred threshold of Orioles general manager Dan Duquette — at Double-A.

Duquette said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver once told him, “Get as many shortstops as you can, then figure out where they play once they get to the big leagues.” Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Gary Sheffield originally played short with Milwaukee, where Duquette began his career as a scouting assistant. Hanley Ramirez, whom Duquette signed when he was GM of the Red Sox, was another example.

Machado is athletic, blessed with good hands, quick feet and a powerful arm. Through hard work and physical maturity, he actually has improved as a runner, to the point where some Orioles officials say he is now average overall and above-average going first to third and second to home. And we’ve already seen his extra-base power.

“The risk is mitigated because the kid can do everything,” Duquette said. “He has all the tools.”

He also has a manager, Buck Showalter, who is quite experienced at developing young talent. Showalter had Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera during his tenure with the Yankees, Mark Teixeira with the Rangers, Travis Lee with the Diamondbacks — as well as many others.

Machado was the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft, behind Harper and pitcher Jameson Taillon, who went to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Orioles technically did not invite Machado to major league spring training this year, but Showalter had him ride the bus on all of the team’s trips, “just to get a feel for what he was like.”

And what did Showalter see?

“That he loves baseball,” the manager said. “He loves sitting there talking about it, watching it. He’s a student. He likes the game. He’s a serious guy.

“I can screw around, laugh with anyone. But when it’s time to play, I like serious players. This kid is a serious player. Look at Derek (Jeter) and all those guys — they’re serious about their stuff. It’s a serious game played by serious men.”

Machado worked out with Alex Rodriguez and other major leaguers in his native Miami last offseason. Showalter said his body language reflects his maturity — and the company he keeps.

“He hits a home run, he puts his head down and runs around the bases,” Showalter said. “He’s not going to bring attention to himself.”

Put it all together, and what do you have? A major leaguer. Machado might struggle, particularly on the defensive side. Like Trout last season, he might even need more time in the minors. But the Orioles love his makeup and mental toughness. Failure will not destroy his confidence — and if it does, then he wasn’t the player they thought, anyway.

As for Machado’s future position, well, good question. The Orioles’ starting shortstop, J.J. Hardy, is under contract for $7 million annually through 2014. The club has no plans to trade Hardy, viewing him as a defensive stalwart and calming influence even though he is struggling offensively — Hardy was batting .269 with a .782 OPS on June 5, but he has hit only .181 with a .516 OPS since.

The best guess is that Machado eventually will return to short, and perhaps a minor leaguer such as Jonathan Schoop or Nick Delmonico will take over at third base. Duquette, though, doesn’t even entertain the question, saying, “We’ve got enough to worry about today.”

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The Orioles aren’t worrying about tomorrow or 2013 and ’14. They’re not protecting their top prospect as if he is precious porcelain. They’re going for it, taking a calculated risk, using their best talent as they try to reach the postseason for the first time since 1997.

Winning games, that’s supposed to be the idea.