SARASOTA, Fla. - Manny Machado’s equipment bag from the World Baseball Classic arrived at his locker this morning a few minutes before the three-time All-Star, who walked into the clubhouse with a big smile on his face, approached every teammate, and offered a handshake and a hug. One at a time. Every player he could find.
Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop have reported to camp two days before the first full-squad workout, best friends arriving almost simultaneously at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Could it happen any other way?
Machado expressed his relief over the failed trade discussions, repeated a desire to stay in Baltimore and said that his move to shortstop will be permanent. Any team signing him beyond 2018 will be doing so knowing that he isn’t going back to third base.
Trade talks heated up at the Winter Meetings, but the Orioles insisted that they weren’t shopping him. Machado, meanwhile, said he isn’t surprised that he’s still in the organization.
“I knew from the get-go, I know there’s a business part of it,” he said. “They’re trying to get the best for the team. They’re just trying to look for what was out there, what my value was worth. I knew that they still wanted me here and I was a big key to the success that we’re going to have this year for the team. So I’m here to be an Oriole and do what I’ve got to do to help this team win some games and move forward.”
It hasn’t been a typical offseason for Machado, with the trade speculation and his move to shortstop.
“No, it hasn’t, but the training has been great,” he said. “Life’s been good and no complaints about anything. Things always happen for a reason, things that we can’t control. There’s always things in life that come your way that you just have to deal with and you have no control over. You’ve just got to sit back and watch and basically just hear what’s been told.
“I knew what was in the background of the whole situation, so I kind of knew what was going to happen and what wasn’t. So I was just sitting back getting ready for the season and getting ready for another Orioles season.”
The switch back to his original position has been in the works for a while. Machado, 25, never pushed for it out of respect for veteran J.J. Hardy, who’s a free agent.
“Conversations were arising since last year, since the beginning of the year,” he said. “Since I came into spring training, talks were, ‘Do you want to go back?’ So it was always in the back of my mind. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. If anything comes up, J.J. doesn’t take the option, I definitely want to go back to the position.’
“The season kept going and talks kept asking around, ‘Are you sure, are you sure.’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course. I’m always down for it.’ I got a phone call. Obviously, I had a brief conversation with Buck (Showalter) toward the end of the year and he said we’d talk later on in the year. ‘We don’t know what’s going on. We have to sign some people. We have to do this, we have to make moves.’ And he hit me up and made it happen. He told us what was going to happen and said that I was going to be a big a part of this team, of this organization going forward for this year.
“It’s where my heart has always been. It’s my natural position, that’s where I think I can be the best at what I’m worth there. It’s not really something about, I know a lot of the talk has been, ‘Oh, is he going to be worth more there? More money.’ It’s not about the money. It’s not about going out there and signing a 20-year deal. This is where my heart has always been, this is what I want to do, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.
“This is what I came into this world to do was to play shortstop at the big league level. Finally Buck and the Baltimore organization are giving me the opportunity to go out there and do what I can at that position and show myself. That’s been my dream all along. I’m just really looking forward to it.
The Orioles haven’t renewed extension talks with Machado’s representative and he’s expected to leave as a free agent, cashing in with a contract that will obliterate the $161 million deal given to first baseman Chris Davis.
“We just had arbitration talks and just basically what’s going on with the trade and stuff like that,” he said. “Kind of communicating with me. But other than that, there hasn’t been anything else.
“You know what? It shouldn’t be a distraction. I don’t work in the front office. I’m not an agent. I play baseball. That’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only thing I really know how to do, to be honest. Just go out there, play baseball and answer the questions I need to answer and go about my business.
“My job is to go out there and produce and if I don’t do that, none of the other stuff will come with it. So go out there, you know, try to help this team as much as I can, be a good teammate and do everything I’ve got to do in this clubhouse and do everything I have to do on the field and things will just start rolling.”
The idea that Machado is playing out his final months as an Oriole will be an unavoidable storyline that follows him from city to city. They drafted and developed him. Moved him to third base out of necessity and watched him blossom into a two-time Gold Glove winner and Platinum Glove recipient.
“Hopefully not. Hopefully, I’m here all year and we’re in the World Series. That would be awesome,” he said.
“It crossed my mind a little bit when the trade talks were going that I might not be able to see these guys again. See my coaches and see the guys that I’ve known for the last seven years. At one point it was kind of a little sad. Thank God nothing went down and I was able to come back and see my guys that I’ve been with for seven years. It’s just going to be a great experience that I went through at that time, a learning experience this whole offseason, that I’m putting in the back of my mind going forward getting ready for this year.”
Asked whether he wants to stay with the Orioles, Machado replied, “I hope. Everybody hopes.”
“Obviously, this is the only organization I’ve ever played for and the only organization I know, so I could definitely stay here, play for this organization, play for the crowd, play for the fans,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s a great organization that I’ve always played for and gave me an opportunity to come up here and play in the big leagues, but at the same time, there are some things that are out of my jurisdiction, out of my hands. What I can do is go out there and give them the best season I can and see what happens.”
A commitment to winning is going to be an important factor in Machado’s choice of teams. Dollars and dedication.
“A hundred percent,” he said. “We’re committed with it. They’ve got to put their part into it and I know they’re trying as hard as possible to put the best team out there and give us the best opportunity to give ourselves a chance. Hopefully, they can do that in the next couple weeks and get us the key players we need and after that it’s on us to take over the train and ride it to the end.”
Any team hoping to sign Machado and put him back at third base is in for a disappointment.
“Once I do it this year, it’s not something that’s just switching off. I’m making the transition,” he said. “Hopefully, I want to stay there and continue doing it. This is where my heart has always been. Finally getting an opportunity to do it for a full season. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully I can continue playing it for a long time.”
It’s required a different training routine, a reshaping of the body in order to sufficiently cover ground and stay on the field.
“Last year, I got ready to play short for the (World Baseball) Classic, so I kind of had an idea of what I needed to work on,” he said. “I changed my workout last year. But this year, I completely changed it and did a lot more (plyometrics) and less heavy lifting and a lot more resistance stuff and flexibility. This game’s about playing 162 games, not just three months or four months out of the year. I did change a lot and I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing in the offseason to now.”
Machado didn’t play shortstop last season, but he appeared in 45 games in 2016 while Hardy was on the disabled list.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I came in there and played a couple games. It wasn’t anything too crazy, but I kind of got the feel for it, kind of got a little wet. I knew what I had to go into the offseason to do. I knew what I had to do. I had to get flexible and stay as flexible as possible and keep my range of motion, so I kind of changed my workout to more flexibility, more massages, more stretching. At the same time, you can’t lose all the strength, so doing a lot of band work just to get ready to withstand that grind.”
Tim Beckham, who arrived at camp early, moves to third base as Machado’s replacement. They’ve talked a few times over the winter.
“We’re here together. We’re here to play,” Machado said. “He’s going to go out there and do his job. He’s going to go out there and catch the ball. That’s all we can do as defenders. That’s what we talk about around here as an organization is catch the ball first and you make the out later. If you don’t catch it, you’re not going to be able to make the out.
“I think I’m confident he’s an athlete. He can play any position in the field. I think we have a pretty good team going forward. I’m just excited and everybody else is excited to get back out there and get this ball rolling. We had a down year last year and people kind of reflecting on it and I think it will motivate a lot of people in this clubhouse to come back this year and turn some heads.
“I’m looking forward to playing with the guys. Thank God I didn’t get traded. Seeing a lot of new faces, but I know a lot of these guys here and I know the type of group we have here. It’s always nice and tight. We all get along, we have a great clubhouse, we have a great coaching staff. I know the front office is trying to do a lot of things to make this team as good as possible and at the end of the day the players we have here, those that are here are going to fight. We are going to go out with our team to the battleground like it’s war.”
Manny Machado signs autographs for fans at the Ed Smith Stadium complex after reporting to Orioles spring training.