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The Manny Machado era could have been even better for the Orioles

It’s nearly time for the Baltimore faithful to say goodbye to their talented shortstop.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Manny Machado’s time as a Baltimore Oriole is almost over. Everyone knows it. Reporters are indicating that trade discussions are entering their finals stages, Machado was removed from Sunday’s game as “a precaution” and the MASN broadcast crew told him “good luck” at the conclusion of their most recent post-game interview. It appears that the 26-year-old’s start at the All-Star Game later this week has a good chance to be the final time he wears an Orioles uniform. It’s a bummer, but that is the reality of professional sports.

The Orioles selected Machado third overall in the 2010 amateur draft out of Brito Miami Private School in Florida. He rocketed through the minor leagues, despite missing some time in 2011 with a knee injury, and made his MLB debut on August 9, 2012 as the third baseman for the playoff-bound Birds.

Since then, Machado has been everything a team could want from a top draft choice. He’s made the All-Star team for a fourth time now, taken home a pair of Gold Gloves and even garnered a few MVP votes in three separate seasons. For the Orioles, his impact brought with it something even bigger.

From 1997-2011, the franchise did not qualify for the postseason once. While Machado was not the sole reason why, he was a large contributor to three Orioles teams to advance into October. He helped to return the organization from the dark ages and give the fans hope. That alone will make him a team legend for eternity.

However, there is small feeling, at least to me, that these last nine years in the O’s system and nearly seven seasons in the bigs for Machado could have amounted to even more. Most of that nagging thought is brought about by a reflection on the 2014 season.

Machado began that year on the disabled list with a knee injury that had ended his 2013 campaign slightly early. He had surgery to correct the issue and returned to the O’s lineup at the end of April 2014. Over the 82 games that the then-third baseman played, he hit .278/.324/.431 with 12 homers and 12 doubles while, of course, playing stellar defense at the hot corner. Then, he got hurt again.

For the third time in his professional career, Machado had suffered a knee injury. This was the opposite knee to the one he hurt in 2013, but it concluded his season all the same. The difference this time, as far as the Orioles were concerned, is that this team, unlike the group in 2013, was headed for the playoffs. In fact, they were going to win the AL East for the first time in 17 years. If they hoped to make any noise in October, it would have to happen without one of their biggest stars.

On top of Machado’s absence, the O’s were also without catcher Matt Wieters, who had begun the season on fire at the plate, because he needed Tommy John surgery. Plus, Chris Davis, who was not having his best year with the stick, missed the end of the season and the duration of the O’s playoff run because of a PED suspension. The presence of all three of them would have made a difference, but the loss of Machado especially hurt.

Ryan Flaherty was Machado’s replacement at the time and, to be fair, he held his own. Across seven playoff games, Flaherty went 6-for-21 with a home run, four walks and seven strikeouts and even started an extremely important double play in Game 2 of the ALDS with an impressive diving stop. However, we will never know what Manny would have done with the same playing time. The O’s were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, but every game was close. If the O’s could have won just one of those games, everything could have been different. Machado may have given the O’s a margin of error that didn’t exist without him.

As mentioned before, the Orioles went to the postseason three times during the Machado era. In addition to 2014, they also made the tournament in 2012 and 2016, but those two years felt inferior. Machado was a rookie in 2012 and the O’s were a team on the rise. Better days were ahead. It was the opposite in 2016. The roster didn’t seem as talented, and they played to their potential, which was a wild card exit. How good were the O’s in 2014, really? We never got to find out.

There’s not much else to be disappointed about from Machado’s tenure with the O’s. Most other criticisms feel like nagging. Was he better at third base? Yeah, but he played shortstop throughout the minors and the Orioles were willing to let him move. And sure, he could be a hot head at times, like when he got upset about Josh Donaldson tagging him or when he chucked the bat against the Athletics, but he seems to have grown and moved past that.

It’s unfortunate that the Orioles have to say goodbye to Machado at all. He’s 26 years old, seemingly entering the prime of his offensive abilities, and the team that drafted him won’t get to witness just how good he can be first-hand.

The O’s have one last opportunity to benefit from the talents of Machado. A trade is coming, and it sounds like they should get a pretty good offer in exchange for just a few months of his service. Acquiring the right pieces could set the team up for success once again. But if Sunday’s game was the last we see of Manny in Baltimore, we can rest assured knowing that we had the chance to see one of the greatest talents to ever wear the jersey. Thanks, Manny! For everything.