SARASOTA, Fla. — If Manny Machado were any more comfortable in spring training, he’d be carrying a hammock out to the field with him.
Six years after his last full-time exposure to playing shortstop — with the Double-A Bowie Baysox — Machado is making a glitch-free transition back to the position. If his employers, the Baltimore Orioles, had any concerns that a focus on defense might hinder his offensive production, Machado’s .419/.457/.744 slash line in 43 Grapefruit League at-bats is an early statement to the contrary. The bat is all revved up and ready to go.
A momentous year awaits Machado, who has made three All-Star Games, won two Gold Gloves and finished in the top five in MVP balloting twice in five seasons. He’s one of two generational position players due to hit the free-agent market in November, and some big-market clubs recalibrated their luxury tax threshold status this offseason in anticipation of making a run at him or Bryce Harper. (Those teams know who they are.)
The collateral damage from trade rumors, massive contract projections and a position switch might be enough to rattle a young star, but Machado, 25, exudes the calmness of a player with a pine-tar grip on his destiny. He has been in a good place since that day in the offseason when manager Buck Showalter called and told him he would be moving from third base to his favorite spot on the field.
“I think a lot of people are saying, ‘He’s going over there because he wants more money or more value,'” Machado told ESPN.com. “It doesn’t come down to money or more value. I’ve already established myself as a player. I’m worth what I’m worth already. It doesn’t matter if I’m at short or third. The transition over there is because that’s where my heart is. That’s what I do.”
Machado elicited Alex Rodriguez comparisons as a teenager, when the Orioles spent $5.25 million to sign him as the third pick in the 2010 draft. He shifted to third base in deference to J.J. Hardy and made the transition look easier than anyone had a right to expect. He won a Platinum Glove as the American League’s best overall fielder in 2013 and logged an aggregate plus-81 defensive runs saved at third base from 2012 to 2017.
Now he’ll try to impose his will upon the game from shortstop. The early reviews from Grapefruit League scouts are positive.
“He makes every throw,” an AL talent evaluator said. “He makes every play look easy. Because of positioning and the shift, I think range is overrated now anyway. He still has elite body control, and his hands are as special as they were when he was at third base.”
Hardy is an unemployed free agent this winter at age 35, but his influence still resonates in Baltimore’s camp. Showalter has taken note of Machado’s fundamentally sound approach to starting double plays. Rather than field a grounder and gun it across his body to second, Machado is more inclined to secure the ball with two hands, show it to Jonathan Schoop and shovel it in a more easily catchable manner.
And some things simply can’t be taught or ingrained through osmosis.
“Manny can create a lot of velocity with his arm from different angles, so he doesn’t have to have momentum going toward the target,” Showalter said. “That’s why he made so many plays at third. The arm strength that he showed there moving away from the target really plays at shortstop, too.”
During Machado’s extended run at third, a part of him missed the constant action, movement and traffic-cop responsibilities of shortstop. He is mentally engaged now and liberated to use all the physical gifts at his disposal.
The support team in Baltimore has helped expedite the transition. Infield coach Bobby Dickerson, who tutored Machado on the finer points of third-base play, is still around to provide feedback, pointers and an abundance of fungoes. And Machado will see a familiar face at the end of those double-play flips. Machado and Schoop were middle infield partners for Frederick, Delmarva and Bowie in Baltimore’s system in 2011 and 2012, so they felt an instant synergy upon arrival at Ed Smith Stadium this spring.
As teenagers in the minors, Machado and Schoop reserved their last 10 double-play hookups before the game for blind throws, flips off the glove and other Vizquel-to-Alomar-caliber acrobatics. The chemistry between the teammates is evident when they loosen up as catch partners and banter with each other during idle moments around the bag.
“We’re gonna do some crazy things and impress some people this year,” Machado said.
In preparation for the physical grind at shortstop, Machado altered his workout schedule over the winter. He concentrated more on lateral movements than he did at third base, while sticking with his intense weight-training regimen. But the biggest change was an increased focus on nutrition.
Machado went on a health kick, revamped his diet and added strength and more definition to his body during the offseason. He arrived at camp at about 215 pounds, close to his playing weight of a year ago, while reducing his body fat from 14 percent to 10-11 percent.
Challenging as it was, Machado eliminated two of his go-to dietary staples through the years.
“I love pizza and McDonald’s,” he said. “Chicken nuggets and a large fries — that’s my thing. For a while I would drive past a McDonald’s and I’d want to stop. But once you change your eating habits and put the right things in your body, you don’t even crave it anymore.
“Are you going to put cheap gas in your Lamborghini? I feel like I’m a Rolls-Royce or a Lamborghini — whichever one. It doesn’t matter. It’s an expensive car, and you’re not going to put something cheap in there. Once you put the good stuff in there, you can’t go back.”
Machado hired a personal chef who came over to his house daily to prepare lunch and dinner. Among his new dietary staples: bone broth, garlic, peanuts, almonds and lots and lots of greens. He’ll still snack on tortilla chips and salsa, nibble on the occasional sweet or break open a bag of sour cream and onion-flavored potato chips now and then. But those moments of weakness are fleeting.
“And only the baked ones,” Machado said, after sharing his potato-chip-related confession.
Machado envisions the dietary changes benefiting him for the rest of his life — not just his baseball life. Short-term, he’s making small and subtle decisions each day to better navigate his walk year. In contrast to Harper, who categorically shut down free-agency talk at a news conference upon arrival at Washington Nationals camp, Machado is picking his spots carefully and trying to weed out the noise.
A small brushfire appeared last week out of nowhere. After Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge told Machado he would look good in pinstripes, Major League Baseball took notice, and Machado was put in a position where he had to respond. He told reporters the encounter was “blown out of proportion,” and all parties did their best to move forward.
The occasional flare-up notwithstanding, Machado has a plan in place for 2018. If all goes well, he will play at least 155 games, as he has done for four of the past five seasons, and the Orioles will surpass their PECOTA projection of 70 victories. Come November, he’ll sit down with his family and his representatives from the MVP Sports Group and assess his career options.
“I know I’m blessed,” Machado said. “Everyone works hard to get to this situation. What I’ve learned is, we can’t control what the outcome is. I can only control going out there and putting up the best numbers and taking my team to the playoffs and being the best person I can be out there. Those are the things I can control.”
Baltimore’s starting rotation might have something to do with the team’s record, but you get the picture. As spring training nears the end, Machado’s bat is cooking, and he’s enjoying the vantage point from his new/old position at short. It’s almost time to take the Lamborghini out of the garage.
By Jerr Crasnick