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Why is Manny Machado moving to shortstop?

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Sep 26, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (13) bare-hands a ground ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fifth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Why is Manny Machado a shortstop now, of all times?

There was a brief time when the Baltimore Orioles were undoubtedly going to make Machado their shortstop of the future — mainly in the months following their selection of him in the 2010 June Amateur Draft. Then that December, the baffling J.J. Hardy trade happened with the Minnesota Twins, when the Orioles got the man who would start at short for them for the next seven years for two minor league relievers, only one of whom (Jim Hoey) ever played even 60 major league innings (only 24 2/3 with the Twins, all disastrous). Machado was still the shortstop of the future, but if the Hardy acquisition worked out, everything was fine — given his large frame, Machado would likely have to move to third base at some point in his career anyway; why should Baltimore give him a head start?

The Hardy acquisition did work out, and when Machado came up to the big leagues in 2012, that’s precisely what happened: He moved to third base to accommodate Hardy remaining at short. Between then and the end of last season, there have been brief moments (and occasional extended stints) when Machado has played shortstop, and he’s shown that the Dan Duquette front office’s decision to move him when bringing him up was generally correct: Machado is an otherworldly defender at third base, but merely above-average at shortstop, and with a legitimately great defensive shortstop on the team in Hardy the left side of the Orioles’ infield was fantastic.

Hardy is gone now, of course; the last three seasons he spent in Baltimore were marked by constant injury and unacceptably poor performance at the plate, and at age 35 it seems likely that if he does find a place with a team in the majors rather than retire, it will be on a non-roster spring training invite. That means Machado is finally, in his last year with the Baltimore Orioles, moving over to become the team’s full-time shortstop… for some reason.

It’s not as though the Orioles didn’t have a succession plan in place for Hardy. In fact, they have quite a decent one: Baltimore acquired former first-round pick Tim Beckham from the Tampa Bay Rays for a minor league reliever (sound familiar?) near the end of last season, and he had an excellent first two months with the Orioles. Beckham is not the defensive presence Hardy was at short, and he has also had problems staying on the field, but the plan seemed clear going into the offseason that Machado-Beckham-Jonathan Schoop-Chris Davis would be the Orioles’ infield alignment in 2018, moving from left to right.

Now, Beckham and Machado are flipping, with Beckham playing third base and Machado moving over to short. This might improve Beckham’s value; the weakest part of his defensive game is his range, while the strongest parts of it are his arm and fundamentals — but the same can be said of Machado, and Beckham has spent all of 52 major league innings at third base in his career. That’s about the same amount of time he spent at first.

Machado, on the other hand, we know is worse at shortstop than at third base, because at third base he’s one of the top two defenders in baseball (depending how you feel about Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, you could rate him the best defender at third). Machado at shortstop might not even be a top-15 starter given how defense-oriented the league has become at short, swinging back from the late ’90s and early 2000s. Trading an elite defender and a solid defender for a solid defender and a question mark is a strict downgrade; why would Baltimore do this, given that the main reason Manny wants to play short is clearly to build his value for free agency in the winter?

The answer, of course, is that moving Machado to short builds value for the Orioles at the trade deadline as well. There’s no reason to move Manny off the hot corner if the goal as a team is to win as many games as possible, but if Baltimore’s goal was to win as many games as possible, it would have pounced on the starting pitching market by now the way the Milwaukee Brewers are doing with Yu Darvish. Instead they continue to fiddle with their roster and twiddle their thumbs, hoping for Alex Cobb’s ask to finally drop to a level the Orioles think they can “afford,” but in reality working themselves into a position to end up with Matt Garza and Jason Vargas at the end of February.

Since Baltimore isn’t going to contend for the division in 2018 — especially not with that Yankee juggernaut ascendant in the Bronx — it might as well build up the guys it will trade at the deadline as much as possible. Teams already know Machado is an elite third baseman; Baltimore can always trade him to a team that needs one of those. But what about shortstop? Might as well give him a showcase there and increase the possible competition for his services at the end of July.

Is any of this good news for Oriole fans? No, of course not. But Oriole fans haven’t had much to root for since the Kansas City Royals swept them out of the ALCS in 2014, even counting the improbable surge to reach a subsequent embarrassment in the Wild Card Game in 2016. There’s no particular reason good things would start happening this season.

Manny Machado is playing shortstop because that’s what makes him most valuable to other teams, at the deadline and in the offseason. That’s how the Baltimore Orioles are thinking now. Whatever improbable contention window this team ever had has finally and firmly shut.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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