Manny Machado was the best player on the 2015 Orioles. He was one of the big reasons that the team was able to squeak out a non-losing, 81-81 season. Machado was so good that it's impossible to imagine any near-future Orioles team being successful without him. When you really, really hit on a high draft pick, Machado's 2015 season is what that looks like.
As great as Machado was this year, one thing worth remembering is that this was not a sure thing before the season began. Each of the past two years ended for Machado with a surgery to one of his knees. When that kind of thing happens, you can't help but wonder if that's going to be a problem throughout his career. Perhaps it still is something to worry about. The fact that Machado was the only player in all of MLB to play in all 162 games of the regular season goes a long way to making everybody feel better about his health, however.
The numbers that Machado put up at the plate this season are impressive any way you look at them. When the year began, he was just 22. At that young age, which is younger than even most of the hyped college hitters when they end up making MLB debuts, Machado enjoyed a breakout season. The possibilities for the remainder of his time in Baltimore are tantalizing, and the prospect of his potentially departing after another three seasons is a downright depressing, though thankfully distant, thing to contemplate.
Machado's overall batting line of .286/.359/.502 is nothing short of impressive. That would be among the better players in the league even without factoring in Machado's Gold Glove-caliber defense. When you add in the fact that he makes plays like this look so easy:
...what you get is a player who probably belongs in the top 5 of the MVP voting. Certainly he deserves a repeat of his 2013 Gold Glove, though whether he will get either one of these things remains to be seen. If he had one flaw this year it was the fact that he committed 21 errors in the field. He's just so casually good in all of his play at third base that when he's making errors, those too seem to be the result of casual play.
You can even put him at shortstop because your starting shortstop has been playing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder all season and Machado is still just so good. Look at that range, that arm! We can all be thankful that the Dave Trembley-era Orioles were bad enough in 2009 that Machado could be drafted at #3 in 2010.
By season's end, Machado had been the Orioles leadoff hitter for so many games that it was hard to imagine anybody else being there. As a player with some speed and the ability to take a walk on a roster where both of these qualities were lacking, he made sense as someone worth trying in that spot.
Back in early April, this move was not as much of a no-brainer. In fact, Machado stumbled somewhat out of the gate, going hitless in the team's first five games and struggling generally for the first two weeks or so of the season. During this time, luminaries like Alejandro De Aza and Everth Cabrera were taking leadoff at-bats for the Orioles.
Although Machado had only a .482 OPS after 14 games, he went on such a tear in the final six games of April that his OPS for the month improved to .804. That hot streak seems to have been enough that starting May 2, manager Buck Showalter inserted Machado into the leadoff spot, where he stayed for most of the rest of the year, moving only for some games towards the end when it became clear that his prodigious power was almost wasted in that leadoff spot.
More Manny Machado
Did I mention the home runs? Not that you needed me to mention the home runs. He blasted 35 bombs this year, more than doubling the total he'd mustered over his previous three big league seasons. One of those things people say about young hitters - speaking of doubling - is that the doubles will turn into home runs as they mature as players. This is not always a true statement, as we learned in the case of Nick Markakis. Machado, on the other hand, may be a better example of that bromide.
Consider that Machado delighted us with 51 doubles in his first full MLB season in 2013. He also hit 14 home runs that year in 710 plate appearances. Not bad for a 20-year-old, right? Now, two years later, Machado's doubles total shrunk from 51 to 30. That's 21 fewer doubles. But at the same time, Machado's home run total increased by 21 from 14 to 35. The doubles really did turn into home runs.
That the subtraction from the doubles had an equal addition in the home run column is a coincidence, but it's illustrative of the idea that Machado has arrived (for good, Orioles fans hope) as one of the game's premier hitters. There were only 12 players in all of MLB who hit more homers than Machado this year and only 20 players who exceeded his 70 walks.
On top of that, only 15 players in the American League drove in more runs than Machado's 86, this despite the fact that the Orioles 7-8-9 hitters, who might have gotten on base ahead of Manny, were mostly disaster areas for the whole season.
Perhaps best of all for the O's, Machado did all of this while earning a very modest $548,000 salary. The cheap years have run out for the team. The price of Machado will be going up every year for the next several years. Already, he's estimated by MLBTR to be in line for a $5.9 million salary for next year. If his 2016 is like this, that could double for the year beyond. There's no doubt he's earned those raises. Eventually, you've got to pay that piper.
Machado was valuable enough for the O's this season. He gains even more value as one of the small number of spots on the roster where, no matter what happens in the hot stove season, the Orioles can feel confident that things are good. Hopefully he and the team can work out a long-term contract extension so that Machado can be an answer for the O's for many years to come.