Once you get past Manny Machado, the picture at third base gets very blurry, really fast. Unfortunately, the Orioles might need that picture to come into focus sooner rather than later given that Machado is not a sure bet to be ready by Opening Day.
It is not that the Orioles do not have any options behind Manny. They do. It is more a case of those backup options not being backup third basemen in the more traditional sense. Ryan Flaherty could slide over from 2B to 3B to begin the season, with two out of three of Alexi Casilla, Jemile Weeks, Ivan De Jesus Jr., and Cord Phelps handling 2B duties. Perhaps the O’s are impressed enough with Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar that they give him an audition at 3B if Machado begins the season on the disabled list. Jonathan Schoop is a long shot – the organization would rightfully prefer to start him at AAA – but with a hot spring at the plate, you never know. Steve Pearce has played 24 professional games at 3B. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him take some reps at that position during camp, although his lack of game time at the hot corner might make the team weary of putting him there to start the season.
What it boils down to is that if Manny takes the field Opening Day versus the Red Sox, the Orioles likely do not carry a true backup third baseman. Flaherty and/or the backup MI would assume that role. If not, someone else – be it a middle infielder, Almanzar, Pearce, or somebody else entirely – will likely get at least an audition with the club until Machado is back healthy.
Clearly third base is one position where the Orioles are lacking for depth. The picture behind Machado is so fuzzy that at this point I cannot even make a good guess on who will be the AAA starter at this position.
Major League Starter
Manny Machado (B: R, T: R; Age: 21)
Manny contributed some anxiety to Orioles fans Saturday at Fan Fest when he remained firmly non-committal about whether or not he’ll be healthy for Opening Day. The 21 year old was clearly choosing his words carefully, not wanting to make a promise that he might not be able to complete. He wants to rehab properly and not be rushed to returning to the diamond before he is ready to do so. While there is always a chance he is out until May, I think in all likelihood that Machado is either at third base on Opening Day in Baltimore or comes off the DL sometime mid-April after squeezing in a minor league rehab stint.
When healthy, Manny is obviously one of the better third basemen in the league and he carries quite a bit of additional upside. Machado produced a solid minor league walk rate (10.4%) but so far that has not translated to the Big Leagues (4.2% career MLB walk rate). Perhaps this is the season where Manny gets that walk rate more in the 6.5% range to push his on-base percentage north of .320. In addition to improvement through added plate discipline, Manny also has upside in the power department. Some of those league leading 51 doubles he hit as a 20-year old will eventually turn into homeruns. When they do, Manny could see his ISO jump from the .150 range to the .175 range rather easily. Those two (relatively) small step forwards – combined with his other-worldly defense – would solidify Machado as one of the (if not the) best all-around third baseman in baseball.
First things first, though – Manny needs to get himself 100% healthy and back on the field. If that means missing a month of the season, so be it.
Major League Backup
Ryan Flaherty (B: L, T: R, Age: 27)
I know I have pegged Flaherty as the starting second baseman and I stick with that. I do think that if Machado is healthy to start the season at third, the Orioles will go with the unusual situation of having their starter at one position be the backup at another.
The reason is rather simple – the Orioles have little 3B depth but a lot of 2B depth. If Machado sits one game or has to be out for any extended period of time, it makes the most sense to cover 2B with some combination of Weeks, Phelps, De Jesus, and Casilla while Flaherty slides over to 3B. Flaherty is clearly the team’s best defensive third baseman behind Machado.
Wild Card (AAA Starter?)
Michael Almanzar (B: R, T: R, Age: 23)
Looking at the Orioles third base depth chart, I start to see why the organization decided to roll the dice and select Almanzar in this winter’s Rule 5 draft. The organization lacks any upper level depth at the position so if Almanzar can prove that he is indeed a late bloomer who is suddenly major league ready then he might have a shot at making the team. I still think it is a long shot – particularly if Manny is healthy – but one never knows.
After flat-lining for years in A-ball, Almanzar has come into his own in A+ and AA the past two seasons. He is walking more, hitting for more power, and scouting reports say his defense is coming around to where he might be a passable major league third baseman. The hope is that since Michael came to pro ball as a raw 17 year old from the Dominican, that he is simply a late bloomer. The Red Sox gave him a large signing bonus in 2008 and thought highly of him at one time, so there are reasons to believe he might be a rare player who goes from struggling to hit SALLY pitching to a major leaguer in less than three seasons. It is a long shot, but that seems to be the thinking.
Given the lack of any obvious third base option at Norfolk, I could envision the Orioles working out (or at least attempting to work out) a trade for Almanzar with the Red Sox later in camp. The organization clearly likes him since they used a Rule 5 pick – a selection they put a lot of thought into – on him,. Given that they might still want to retain him even if he doesn’t have a spot on the 25-man roster.
Wild Card II
Jonathan Schoop (B: R, T: R, Age: 22)
It would appear that the Orioles view Schoop as a long-term solution at 2B but it is not out of the realm of possibility that the hot corner could wind up as his future home.
The Orioles want to extend J.J. Hardy which would mean that Machado stays at third base for at least two more seasons after 2014. In that scenario, Schoop’s path to the big leagues is either as a second baseman or a backup infielder. However, if the O’s are not successful in extending Hardy and Ryan Flaherty turns in a solid season at 2B, than they might want to think about Schoop at third. ESPN’s Keith Law – in his recent prospect rankings – noted that with Schoop’s strong arm, he might be better suited for third than second to begin with.
Schoop has some limited experience there (24 minor league games). However, it is also possible that if the team goes into the season without a surefire starting third baseman at Norfolk, that Schoop is given the spot to at the very least improve his versatility. It wouldn’t shock me to see such a scenario play out and it might be the best move. If Schoop can split his time 75/25 between third and second next season at Norfolk, he instantly becomes an option for either position on the major league club in 2015 provided that his bat takes the expected steps forward in 2014.