Perhaps the most admirable thing about Manny Machado's success is that he's done so well while playing out of position. A shortstop in high school and for all but two games in the minors, Machado has played every one of his MLB innings at third base. He hasn't just survived at the hot corner—he's thrived. Machado's defense at third (+7 Defensive Runs Saved in 51 games) was critical to the Orioles' late-season success in 2012. This year Machado rates as one of the top defensive third basemen in the game.
Machado shifted to his right not because of any problems he had with his old position, but because the Orioles had a desperate need at his new one. Even while emerging as a surprise contender last year, the team struggled to establish an everyday third baseman, suffering the awful defense of Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit—the two combined for an error every 11 chances—on their way to the AL East lead. Desperate, the Orioles gave Machado a pair of starts at Double A Bowie, then called him to play third base on Aug. 9.
Switching him back to his natural position won't be easy. Machado played well at third, but the Orioles' incumbent shortstop, J.J. Hardy, won his first Gold Glove last year. Acquired in a steal of a trade with the Twins in the 2010 off-season, Hardy is signed through '14. Hardy has an unusual offensive skill set for a shortstop—low-OBP power with no speed; he earned that Gold Glove, however, with a defensive season that rated among the best in the game by all available metrics.
From a team-building standpoint, you don't want to move players from up-the-middle positions to corner ones—the same offensive and defensive performance at shortstop is worth a half-win more than it is at third base. A shortstop like Machado is someone you build around, and while there were scouting concerns that he might outgrow shortstop, he clearly had not done so at the time of the move. If there's any organization that understands this dilemma, it should be the Orioles. Thirty years ago they had a player who was big for the position, but nevertheless qualified to play short. After playing him at third base for three months, Earl Weaver plugged Cal Ripken Jr. in at shortstop on July 1, 1982. Machado can be a third baseman out of convenience now, but the Orioles should think of him as a shortstop once Hardy's contract expires.
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED