For a moment last week in Chicago, it looked like the Orioles were going to be able to salvage a nice road trip despite dropping a series in Cleveland to start the swing. The White Sox had just been swept and the lowly Cubs were on the horizon. Then it all came crashing down - hard.
One sweep (in part because of Jake Arrieta and Tsuyoshi Wada) later, no one feels quite as confident in the O’s as they did a week ago. The division lead has shrunk from nine to six games, and there’s still plenty of season to go. But over the next five weeks and beyond, the schedule isn’t the biggest obstacle these Birds will face. Instead, it will be getting by once again without the services of third baseman Manny Machado.
For the time being, it looks like Chris Davis has the job locked down at third, even while his hitting woes seem to continue. Davis is far from the player Machado is with the glove at third. We saw this firsthand on a few plays at Wrigley Field this weekend. But he’s serviceable enough, especially when getting Ryan Flaherty’s bat into the lineup on a regular basis is the other option. If Steve Pearce continues to produce at a decent clip, you aren’t losing too much offensively with Machado out. Again, Pearce’s bat isn’t at the level of Machado’s, but this is what happens when a season-ending injury crops up.
The national media has loved to compare the Orioles pitching staff to other playoff contenders and always seems to find a reason to doubt Baltimore in that sense. Truthfully, the starters have held up nicely over the last few months and helped lessen the wear and tear on the bullpen. What I start to question is how the defense is impacted without Machado and how much they begin to miss his presence in the No. 2 hole in the order. That’s a much bigger question mark in my mind than pitching.
Machado’s injury also calls into question the long term plans for the Orioles. Not only are there now concerns about a possible injury history that will surely follow the 22-year-old, but also about the structure of the roster going forward.
Machado is going to have to answer the bell when it comes to his health once he returns. This procedure he’s having Wednesday on his right knee is the same one he endured last year on his left knee, and will apparently correct an issue that has been there all along. We are talking about a young player, a superstar in the making, who has yet to get through an entire major league season. That’s important to remember, especially going forward.
There’s no question the health issues Machado has had will impact other parts of the team’s offseason, specifically J.J. Hardy’s impending free agency. What once looked like an incredibly promising left side of the infield may be as torn as Machado’s knee ligament by next year. Can anyone really trust Machado to move to shortstop if Hardy walks? I’m not entirely sure that’s plausible, even if Machado gets an entire spring training under his belt. I’d imagine some of his mobility and range would be limited after two knee surgeries in two seasons.
Even though he started his career in the minors as a shortstop, I think Machado is firmly entrenched as a third baseman now. This gives the Orioles reason to put extra emphasis on retaining Hardy this winter, especially when you look at the other options. Throughout baseball, there aren’t a lot of very good shortstops. This isn’t the era of Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter. Hardy is one of the better at the position, even with a large drop in power this season. There just aren’t a lot of quality shortstops in baseball, at least that can stay healthy and play defense like Hardy. Hanley Ramirez is a pending free agent and Troy Tulowitzki seems to want out of Colorado, but both players are chronically injured and not as good as Hardy with the glove.
The competition is going to be out there this offseason for Hardy, but the near future is obviously a more immediate question. The sky isn’t falling in Birdland, contrary to what some believe, but Machado isn’t going to be able to hold it up. We’ll have to see if the team can cope without him.
Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.