Special night ends with bold decision by Orioles

August 09, 2012 | Luke Jones

The story of Wednesday night was supposed to be local product Steve Johnson, who won his first major league start in front of numerous friends and family at Camden Yards in the Orioles’ 9-2 win over the Seattle Mariners.

Johnson earned his first big-league win exactly 23 years to the day his father Dave Johnson won his first major league game in the Orioles’ famed 1989 “Why Not?” season. It was a touching moment to see friends and family greet the 24-year-old pitcher in the hallway outside the clubhouse following the game as the Orioles completed a three-game sweep and won their fifth consecutive game.

However, the headline was short-lived with the shocking news that the Orioles will promote 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado from Double-A Bowie to Baltimore for Thursday’s series opener against the Kansas City Royals. The announcement came shortly after 11 p.m. and just minutes after it was learned the organization would promote top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy to Bowie for his next start.

What a night.

Many will debate the merits of promoting a 20-year-old shortstop from Double A to play third base, a position at which he’s only played two games in 219 minor-league contests. Machado hit his 11th home run of the season on Wednesday night and was hitting .266 with 59 runs batted in 109 games for the Baysox this year.

The numbers aren’t overwhelming, but the potential is, as executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are counting on Machado to contribute to a club in the midst of a pennant race this late in the season for the first time in 14 years.

His transition to third base might have its share of growing pains, but the defensive struggles of Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit have set a low bar at the hot corner. Some scouts have projected an eventual move to third for the 6-foot-3 infielder anyway, but that long-term decision doesn’t have to be made right now.

Unlike the announcement three years ago of the Orioles promoting catching phenom Matt Wieters, this wasn’t a decision made a couple days in advance to boost ticket sales on a Friday night in late May. The club will likely see more walk-up sales than usual on Thursday night, but the Ravens’ televised preseason opener in Atlanta will stunt the potential of more people showing up at Camden Yards.

Whether you agree with the promotion or not, this was a decision based solely on giving the Orioles a better chance to win now by promoting their most attractive positional asset in the farm system. Machado must play every day for this move to make any sense, and manager Buck Showalter has made no secret about his affection for the young infielder’s ability and mental makeup.

It may work, or it may not.

But it’s a bold strategy, one made with no regard for delaying the start of his service clock as the Orioles have done with other young players in recent seasons.

No one really knows if Machado is ready to handle third base for a contending major league club, but we’re about to find out. If he’s truly the special talent so many inside and outside the organization have tabbed him to be, early struggles will not ruin his psyche or potential for success in the future.

A fun and compelling season is about to get that much more interesting on Thursday night.

The promotion came out of left field, but, then again, so has everything else about this 2012 season in which nearly every statistic suggests the Orioles should be resting well below the .500 mark while they instead hold a 60-51 record and are tied with Detroit and Oakland for the American League wild card lead.

I’ll borrow a 23-year-old expression that’s been used over and over in this unlikeliest of seasons for the Orioles.

Why not?