At 24, third baseman Manny Machado has become an Orioles superstar, producing two back-to-back finishes in the top five of American League MVP voting. He produced a career-high OPS of .861 in 2015, then topped it last year at .876.
While Orioles fans ponder if the club has a realistic chance of signing Machado to a long-term deal, there is another question worth debating: How much better can this kid get?
First, a look at the last two seasons for Machado:
2015: .286 average, .359 OBP, .502 slugging, 30 doubles, 35 homers, 86 RBIs.
2016: .295 average, .343 OBP, .533 slugging, 40 doubles, 37 homers, 96 RBIs.
Machado recorded an OPS+ of 132 in 2015 (100 is league average) and 128 in 2016. He scored 102 and 105 runs. While he stole 20 bases in 2015, he did not steal one base in 2016 - yes, that is strange. But he finished fourth in the 2015 MVP voting and fifth in 2016.
In 2016, Machado did walk a little less and strike out a bit more. His walk rate dropped from 9.8 to 6.9, while his strikeout rate increased from 15.6 to 17.2 percent.
Machado, who turned 24 on July 6, was voted the winner of the 2016 Louis M. Hatter Most Valuable Oriole Award by members of the local media. He set career highs in home runs and RBIs and began the year with a career-high 16-game hitting streak from April 4-23 (.397/.446/.779), becoming the first Oriole to hit safely in the club’s first 16 games of a season. On Aug. 7 at Chicago against the White Sox, he became the second player in major league history to homer in each of the first three innings of a game.
Machado has been compared often to two other young stars, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. But while those two have each won an MVP (Trout has two), Machado is still looking for that. While Machado produced Wins Against Replacement (WAR) ratings of 7.1 and 6.7 in 2015 and 2016, Harper had an incredible 2015 season at a 9.9 WAR with a 198 OPS+. Trout has recorded a 7.9 WAR or above for five straight years, averaging a 9.6 WAR in that time. He’s basically in a class by himself at this point.
But for Machado to even be in the conversation with those two shows how highly regarded and talented he is throughout the game. He’s a player that was groomed as a shortstop in the minors that came to the majors and instantly played exceptional defense at third base.
If I can digress and nitpick here for a moment, I wish Machado played with the same joy as I saw from him in the minors when he could match Jonathan Schoop in that department. I think Machado has been more guarded and businesslike the last year or two. You probably see less of the outward joy just in playing the game we once saw from him, but clearly Schoop can bring it out of him at times. When I think of team leaders on the Orioles, I would not list Manny at the top, but when I think of the most talented players, he is clearly at the top.
So can he go to another gear and is there more to come in his game? How good can he become? Clearly, producing as he has at such a young age would indicate there is more to come and those years between, say, 26 and 32 could be something special.
How can Machado still improve and what is his ceiling?