If Bryce Harper can do it, anyone can. At least that is how the Orioles seem to be treating the development of Manny Machado. The 20-year old shortstop and consensus top 10 prospect in all of baseball will make his Major League debut on Thursday against the Kansas City Royals.
The Nationals called-up Harper to the Major Leagues in late April when the former top overall pick was just 19 years old. Harper had played just one full season of professional baseball, but wasn’t dominant at all. While he hit over .300 in Single-A, Harper’s batting average hovered around .250 in Double-A in 2011.
At the beginning of this season, General Manager Mike Rizzo publicly stated that the Nationals wouldn’t rush Harper. Rizzo declared that his top prospect’s arrival in the big leagues must come with immediate success. Thus, the Nationals optioned Harper to Triple-A.
Led by a strong pitching staff, Washington raced out to a lead in the NL East in April. Yet, they struggled to score runs. Enter Harper, who had played just 21 games in Triple-A. He was hitting just .243.
The organization hoped Harper would quickly adjust to better pitching in the major leagues. At first, Harper out-produced his statistics in the minor leagues. He hit .282 before the All-Star break and posted an .826 OPS.
After the All-Star Break, Harper has hit just .182. He has 10 home runs for the entire season, which isn’t bad for a teenager. Then again, coming into the 2010 draft, Harper was viewed as a future major league slugger with already-elite bat speed. His current batting average of .254 nearly matches his totals at other stops in the minor leagues. Moreover, Harper’s WAR is just 1.9 this season, meaning the Nationals are basically two games better in the standings because of Harper’s production. Harper’s WAR, however, is misleading. Consider that Jayson Werth already has a WAR of 0.9 in 2012, yet has played only 33 games due to a wrist injury.
Ultimately, the questions becomes at what cost? Harper’s growth shouldn’t be stunted by his numerically average 2012 season, but it is anyone’s best guess. Clearly, he hasn’t rescued the Nationals’ offense, as the organization had originally hoped.
The Orioles must realize the Harper experiment isn’t a great success. The Orioles must be patient with Machado. Like Harper, he has yet to dominate at the minor league level. Machado hit just .266 in Double-A this season and hasn’t even played in Triple-A. Moreover, although his 6 foot 3 inch frame and size 13 shoes project elite power at a prime position, Machado’s best HR/AB ratio in the minors is just 24. That mark is from Single-A and barely edges JJ Hardy’s current ratio of 28.
Machado’s frame is a cause for concern defensively. Coming into the 2010 draft, scouts wondered whether he could stay at shortstop in the big leagues. Machado has done little to dispel the worries this season. In 103 games at shortstop with Double-A Bowie, he has 22 errors. No shortstop in MLB has 22 errors yet. Dodgers’ shortstop Dee Gordon has the most errors in all of baseball with 17. Machado, fortunately, will play third base against the Royals.
Best-case scenario, Machado is the Orioles’ version of Mike Trout, but what are the odds. Machado’s production is such a mystery, and from his minor league statistics, he is barely above-average. Obviously, Machado is an incredible talent who can be the Orioles’ shortstop in the future, but he is just 20. He is still extremely raw.
A baseball player’s confidence is so fragile, and the Orioles have invested so much in Machado. The combination of Robert Andino and Wilson Betemit at third base is agonizing, but the prospects of a shaken Machado could be much worse.