Today is an important anniversary in Birdland.
Yet it’s one that comes with a tinge of bitterness…and a question about the future.
You see, it was ten years ago tonight that the Orioles announced they would be promoting top prospect Manny Machado from Double-A Bowie to Baltimore the next day – and handing him the job at third base.
(This announcement, by the way, came after a dramatic win by the O’s where pitcher Steve Johnson – 23 years to the day after his father Dave recorded his first big league victory for the ’89 Orioles – defeated the Mariners 9-2 to bring the 2012 Orioles to 60-51 on the season.)
As we all remember, the promotion of Machado was startling news for a handful of reasons.
First of all – with the Orioles in the thick of a postseason chase for the first time in years – it was a bit surprising to see the club turn to a young player at such an important position.
Not only that…by promoting Machado in August they would be starting his “service time clock” earlier than anticipated. I think it’s fair to say that most baseball experts expected the club to keep Machado in the minors for the full 2012 season and then delay his Major League debut until a few weeks into 2013 so as to get another year of service time from the player before he reached free agency.
That is the game the Chicago Cubs would famously play at the start of the 2015 season when they kept Kris Bryant in the minors at the start of the season to “work on his defense.”
The promotion of Machado was, in effect, a message to the team’s players and fans that they were pushing their chips into the middle of the table on a 2012 postseason run.
The other startling part of Machado’s promotion was his position: third base.
He had reached the upper tier of the game’s prospect rankings as a shortstop and was projected to be one of the game’s best. And the O’s had J.J. Hardy holding that position down very capably in August 2012.
But third base was a disaster. So the club quietly had Machado work on a shift to third base in the minor leagues.
As the Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck wrote following Manny’s promotion, the O’s had “a defensive hole at third base you could drive the team bus through, and they didn’t do anything at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline to upgrade…the 20-year-old shortstop of the future had been swinging a very hot bat at Double-A Bowie, and Wilson Betemit has been wearing a very cold glove at third base in Baltimore.”
Now for the bittersweet part – and I promise not to dwell on this.
If you had told any O’s fan on this date back in 2012 that Machado would be gone by the end of the 2018 season and that the team would only have a five-year window of competitiveness…they wouldn’t have believed you.
At that time, we were imagining Manny spending his entire career in orange and black and getting one of those fancy new statues we spent the summer of ’12 dedicating out behind left field.
And the team?
Well, we were just getting started. Buck Showalter had ushered in a new era of winning baseball that would last forever, right? Right? Right?
OK, enough of that.
We’ve looked back on the anniversary (Manny had a triple in his second at bat and helped key an 8-2 O’s win over Kansas City.)
And we’ve wondered what could have been if the decision-making had been a bit better and that competitive window had remained open a little longer.
Now let’s look ahead.
Because at the time of Manny Machado’s promotion – again, ten years ago tonight – the Orioles were 4.5 games behind the first place New York Yankees…and they held the top spot in the A.L. Wild Card race.
The 2022 Orioles have a highly rated shortstop prospect in the minors right now. (In fact, today he was named the game’s #1 prospect by Baseball America.)
And the team also finds itself in the thick of a postseason chase. They’re not in contention for a division title, sitting 13.5 games behind the first place Yankees. But they are just two games out of a wild card spot in the newly expanded MLB playoff format.
So could we see a repeat?
Is it possible the Orioles would promote top prospect Gunnar Henderson in an attempt to give the lineup an offensive boost? (They scored just five runs over the weekend in a series win over the Pirates.)
I think it’s fair to say that Henderson is just as ready as Machado was in 2012.
Machado had played a total of 222 minor league games at the time of his promotion at age 20.
The 21-year-old Henderson has played a total of 227 minor league games through August 7.
In fact, based on Henderson’s performance in 46 games at Triple-A – a level that Machado skipped completely – it could be argued that Henderson is even more ready than Machado was.
So if the Orioles were to promote Henderson…where would they play him?
Shortstop Jorge Mateo has hit a bit better lately – and brings above average defense as well as elite speed to the table.
Henderson is capable of playing third base…and Ramon Urias could easily slide over to second in place of Rougned Odor and his .193/257/.365 slash line.
With the trades of Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini at the deadline, it’s clear that the Orioles organization doesn’t put a high value on that third wild card spot in the expanded playoff format.
And Mike Elias essentially admitted that the odds of the O’s capturing that spot aren’t great.
So that makes me think it’s a longshot that the club would promote Henderson now in an attempt to give the lineup a boost.
My guess is that they stay true to their value-oriented playbook and keep Henderson in the minors long enough to get that extra year of service time.
But while that’s what I suspect they’ll do…my sincere hope is that they are making arrangements right now for Henderson to join the team in Baltimore for the remainder of this home stand.
The Orioles may be two games out of that third wild card spot, but they’re only four games behind Toronto for the top wild card position…and the O’s have a whopping 15 games remaining against the Blue Jays this season.
So I say let’s call Gunnar up (and Stowers, too.) It’s time to push those chips to the middle, Elias – let’s go.