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Machado slowly emerging from under the radar

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BALTIMORE -- When the Orioles were in Anaheim earlier this month, Angels phenom Mike Trout approached Baltimore's own wonder kid, Manny Machado, to get acquainted.

"Hey," Trout said to the third baseman, to whom he'd only briefly been introduced previously, "you stole my line drive."

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"Hey," Machado said with a grin as he reminded the fleet-footed 21-year-old outfielder, "you do the same for all of us."

Health permitting, that exchange is one that will become commonplace.

Baseball's well-documented youth movement has anointed Trout -- who in 2012 became the first player in history to hit 30 homers, steal 45 bases and score 125 runs in one season -- as one of the sport's favorite sons alongside 20-year-old Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.

But what of Machado, 20, who through his first 89 career games has stats that rival those of both Trout and Harper? Should the smooth defender, who is hitting .331 with five homers and 24 RBIs, be mentioned in tandem with that vaunted duo?

"Trout and Harper are better runners and had video-game numbers [in the Minor Leagues]," said a National League scout. "But can you say for sure you'd rather have them than Machado in the next five, 10 years? It's so early in their careers. It's really personal preference. It's like picking an ice cream flavor."

This much can be agreed upon: Machado -- taken third in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, behind Harper and Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon -- has had far less hype.

Sure, the arrival of the O's top position prospect last August caused the faithful -- already flocking to Camden Yards to witness the organization's first playoff run since 1997 -- to chant "Man-ny, Man-ny" from the moment he first stepped into the batter's box.

But outside Baltimore, there wasn't a whole lot of buzz. There were no Sports Illustrated covers to grace, as Harper did -- as a high schooler -- or historic moments for national outlets to chronicle the way they did for Trout, who finished second in American League MVP Award voting. Unlike the other two young stars, Machado wasn't billed as the savior of his big league team, instead spending his rookie season batting from the bottom of the order and told upon his promotion that he was there for one reason, and one reason only -- to make routine plays at third base.

"We worked on getting out some of that flash [in the field]," third-base coach Bobby Dickerson said of Machado, who was drafted as a shortstop but moved to third base in the bigs, with the understated nature of Gold Glove-winning shortstop J.J. Hardy alongside him as a guide.

"He does not care [about getting attention]," added Dickerson. "First of all, his family has done a nice job raising him. He's a very good, humble kid. But organizationally, I think, the whole process has been good to keep him in that frame of mind."

Machado, whose arrival last fall coincided with the Orioles' turnaround on defense, has had a monster start to 2013, one that demands notice. He has 12 multihit games in his last 19 contests and has hit safely in 11 of his last 12 road games, going .455 with three homers, nine RBIs and 13 runs in the last dozen contests away from Camden Yards. Machado went 3-for-4 in Sunday's win in Minnesota and, according to Elias, is the first player under 21 to have three consecutive three-hit games since Pittsburgh's Rennie Stennett did so in 1971. The only O's to record four straight three-hit games are Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Don Buford.

"I don't think Manny came up with, other than the Draft status, the stuff that was going on [with Trout and Harper]," said manager Buck Showalter who, by design, downplayed Machado's arrival and still publicly avoids lauding him, grinning as he offers that the young infielder "has a chance to be OK" as a Major Leaguer.

"He's not lying in the weeds anymore," added Showalter. "He can't ambush anybody. You see the respect [from other clubs]. I like the fact that he's stayed within himself and hasn't tried to get too big on the field."

Slotted in the No. 2 spot to start the season, Machado has benefited from the hot starts of several teammates, including frequent leadoff man Nate McLouth. He has also avoided some of the pitfalls that come with second-year players by not trying to tinker with anything after a slow first few games. Machado has had the same approach to hitting for almost a decade.

"I said, 'How did you learn to do this?'" hitting coach Jim Presley said. "He said, 'I've been doing it since I was 11, 12 years old.' Staying inside, staying on top of the ball -- he learned that at any early age. Most of the time, guys have to learn that in the Minor Leagues.

"I'm not worried about putting him in with [Harper and Trout]; they are outfielders and different kinds of players. Trout is a basestealer. Harper can run. [Machado] is smooth in anything that he does. This guy can move around the infield and not miss a beat."

Machado's teammates believe that when all is said and done, this will be the year that his stats -- and national exposure -- will equal those of Harper and Trout.

"If you ask Manny, he's OK without having the hype and just doing his job, and letting everybody kind of discover him over the course of the season," reliever Darren O'Day said. "He's starting to get [more attention] now. I know all the stat geeks love him because of the defense he plays. I know all his pitchers love him. I think all in due time, it will come."

"It's a good question [why Machado has a lower profile]. It's a good argument," Hardy said. "He's defensively really turned our team around. ... Offensively, he's been unbelievable, driving in runs, having good at-bats. He looks like he's running a little bit better.

"[If] he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll get that spotlight. Eventually. But [right now], he doesn't command it, for I don't know what reason. He's just a modest, good player."

Machado's surge at the plate, coupled with his unwavering defense, has him and Dickerson fielding an increasing amount of interview requests. Machado understands that it comes with the territory, having known Harper for years and seeing the media circus that can develop, and he has mentioned several times that as long as the fans in Baltimore embrace him, he is satisfied.

"I'd rather stay under the radar," Machado said. "Keep doing what I'm doing, and eventually [the press] will come. And if it doesn't, it doesn't."

Assuming he keeps this up, the rest of the baseball world will continue to take notice. And the debate about where Machado ranks along the likes of Trout and Harper could go on for years.

"The positions they play are huge," Dickerson said of long-term comparisons. "Whether Manny is at short or third, you think of a corner infielder with some power that defends -- how valuable are you? Look at [Evan] Longoria. How valuable is that player? And how rare is it? Versus an outfielder that can hit. I'm not taking anything off those guys, but outfielders that can hit, they are out there. When you got a plus defender that can hit, play short or third, those positions are a whole lot tougher to get offensive production out of."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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