MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Manny hopeful for eventual return to shortstop

AL Gold Glove Award winner at third may swap spots in Classic

Manny hopeful for eventual return to shortstop

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Manny Machado's World Baseball Classic positioning outlook is a lot like his long-term positioning outlook. Third base? Shortstop? We don't know where Machado will play for certain.

But what can be said for certain is that one of the game's great hot-corner defenders is still interested in a full-time return to his native position -- not just in the Classic, but in the Majors. And that's something to keep in mind as Machado's post-2018 free-agent eligibility looms.

2017 World Baseball Classic

"I'm looking forward to going back to short, if I do go back," Machado said Sunday at Orioles camp. "I hope, I hope."

Machado's position with the Dominican Republic squad is up in the air because of Adrian Beltre's left calf strain last week. If Beltre recovers in time for the start of the tournament, Machado will man shortstop as originally planned. If not, he'll likely fill in at third.

On the O's, Machado is already accustomed to another player dictating whether or not he plays short. He came up to the big leagues in 2012 and deferred to J.J. Hardy, making an emergency shift to third and, with amazing rapidity, proving himself elite. In his first full season in 2013, Machado not only won the Gold Glove Award among American League third basemen, but also the Platinum Glove, the award given to the player voted by fans as the best defender at any position in his league.

Looking back, Machado says the move to third -- a position he had played for just 18 innings in the Minor Leagues -- was best for him.

"I wasn't ready to play shortstop back then," Machado said. "I really didn't have what it took to play short. I was [making] a lot of dumb errors. I didn't have the feel of the game. When I came up to the big leagues and moved to third, my game transformed night and day. I went from making dumb throwing errors and dumb plays on routine balls to winning a Gold Glove."

So why mess with a good thing?

As Machado said, the past few years he's been "paid to drop bombs and play third" -- and to say he's done it well is an understatement. Machado has been a top-five AL Most Valuable Player Award finisher each of the past two seasons, and the feeling here is that he hasn't scratched his ceiling. Around the Major League Baseball, teams are arranging their budgets and licking their lips with the thought of Machado -- much like Bryce Harper -- hitting the open market after 2018, in advance of his age-26 season.

Machado to lead Orioles

But the shortstop slot has its own allure, an innate appeal to all who play it. And when a Hardy injury created the opportunity for Machado to start at shortstop 43 times last season, he got that itch again.

"Playing there last year was awesome, a fun experience," Machado said. "It was something I had always dreamed about, playing shortstop in the big leagues. I proved to myself I can still play that position and do that."

Machado also learned some things that he's now applying to his spring preparation.

Small sample/arbitrary endpoint alert, but while filling in for Hardy for about a month and a half, Machado had a .947 OPS in his first four weeks at short last season and an .869 mark in his last three-plus.

"It was good for him to understand the challenges," manager Buck Showalter said. "There's more wear and tear over there. It's a very demanding position. Not that third base isn't. But shortstop, if you play it right, is a very taxing position. So could he go play it? I don't have any doubt he could. But it's going to be a grind on him."

Though Machado's offensive performance did decline ever-so-slightly as his time at short wore on, he did prove himself a defensive asset at the more demanding position. His UZR/150 innings ranked a respectable 14th among those with at least 350 innings at the position, and he was a positive (plus-three) at the Defensive Runs Saved scale.

Not bad for a guy whose only experience at short in the preceding three-plus seasons was a handful of games and the occasional batting-practice ground ball.

Of course, this does beg the question of whether the juice is worth the squeeze. Why put Machado, with his elite offensive and defensive skill set, at a position that might strain his bat and might lower his standing from truly elite defender to merely a very good one?

That's a question that will have to be addressed some other time, because Hardy is still under the Orioles' contractual control through 2018. But it could be a question worth considering if Machado forces the issue in his free agency.

Though a full-time move back to short would be unusual in an industry in which players of Machado's size and skill set usually mature out of the shortstop position, Machado's own path as an elite prospect impeded at his position by a valuable veteran is a circumstantial one.

"I got kicked out of short," Machado said with a laugh.

Playing with Hardy, though, has taught Machado plenty about what it takes to play the position. Hardy's attention to detail makes him the perfect shortstop for Showalter and the perfect mentor for Machado.

"That's the definition of shortstop," Machado said. "If you have the work ethic that he has and you see how he goes about his business every day, how he works out, how he touches the ground, the routine he has every day, that's how you're going to get better. That's what you have to do. If you want to be the best, you have to work."

Machado wins second Gold Glove

Machado is maturing, both as a player and a person. His growth even in interview interactions this spring is striking. And the O's love the way Machado adapted on the fly -- once again -- when a position need presented itself last season.

"Him going to shortstop might have hurt him in the Gold Glove voting for third base," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "Clearly he's the best third baseman, based on the defensive numbers [Machado had two fewer Defensive Runs Saved than Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre, but in 221 fewer innings at the position]. So he made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team. The great Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson got Gold Gloves for 16 consecutive years. Manny's numbers are of that caliber, but, because he went to shortstop to help the team fill in for injury, he didn't win [the 2016 honor]."

Whether Machado will ever get the opportunity to try to win one as a shortstop remains to be seen. But he hopes to get the opportunity one day -- and not just in the WBC.

"I'm not complaining," Machado said. "I am who I am because of third base. I haven't done enough at short to say otherwise. But I know I can do it over there at that position, as well."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.