Over the last year, baseball fans have celebrated the rise of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as the seminal players of the next generation. Both are dynamic talents with the potential for superstardom and possibly future tickets to Cooperstown.
Quietly, another phenom is emerging in Baltimore. While Harper and Trout were called up early in the 2012 season, giving them an entire summer to dazzle and amaze the baseball world, Manny Machado didn't arrive to the Orioles until August.
Amid much less fan fare, Machado stepped into a contending team's lineup, played a new position and contributed to Baltimore's first postseason berth in 15 years.
Now, in his first full year in the majors, the 20-year-old third baseman is more than a contributor. Machado is an emerging star in the AL East, garnering high praise and knocking on the door of the elusive Harper-Trout conversation.
Before we answer the question of Machado's future, let's first take a quick look at how great, not good, Harper and Trout have been.
While Steve Melewski of MASN did his best to give Machado an edge in their early careers, more context is needed to describe what Harper and Trout have done thus far in the big leagues.
Mike Trout's 2012 season wasn't just great, it was historic. Despite spending the first few weeks of the season in Triple-A, Trout was prolific enough to post the 21st-most valuable season in major league history. At 10.9 WAR, Trout's 2012 belongs in the conversation with the best years of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays.
To put his value in perspective, the 10.9 single-season WAR was never reached by Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson or Albert Pujols in any year of their respective careers.
Amazingly, Bryce Harper might be even better than that.
While Trout completed his age-20 season with all-time great value, if not a valid claim at being deserving of the AL MVP, Bryce Harper burst on the scene as a 19-year-old.
Last month, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs looked into Harper's first 162 games in the majors. The results of his study were astonishing.
With a skill set and swing like Harper's, it's foolish to compare him to his young peers. His production is up there with former MVPs, current All-Stars and the best players in the sport. The fact that he played his first 162 games mostly at the age of 19 is astonishing, but even more so when you consider the numbers he compiled.
As Bill Baer points out at Hardball Talk, Machado is a tremendous young player but not quite as even as MASN's Steve Melewski makes it seem.
However, Machado's plays seems to have grown leaps and bounds from his short stint as a 19-year-old last season.
With a declining strikeout rate, increasing walk rate and stronger isolated slugging numbers, Machado is well on his way to exceeding expectations and projections placed upon him entering the season.
Of course, Machado, much like Harper and Trout, excelled off the bat. While that's rare for very young players, phenoms and future stars tend to find a way to play well, regardless of age.
Machado's .445 slugging percentage in 2012 may not look outstanding on the surface, but it is when put in context. That mark was the fourth highest by a 19-year-old third baseman since 1920. Two of the three names ahead of him: Eddie Matthews and Jimmie Foxx. Considering those two combined for 3,375 RBI, it's not bad company to start a career in.
Over the last calender year, despite not playing a single game above the minors prior to last August, Manny Machado has been the 10th-most valuable third baseman in the sport. Some names below him on that list: Pablo Sandoval, Brett Lawrie and Hanley Ramirez.
This much is clear: Harper and Trout look to be all-time great players. Machado is phenomenal, on the path to superstardom and deserving of accolades.
But he's not quite in their class yet.
On the other hand, 2015 is more than enough time for Machado to catch up in the race for best young star in the sport.
In terms of value, a move back to his natural position of shortstop, coupled with Harper's and Trout's respective switches from center to left field, would enhance Machado's standing.
The comparisons to A-Rod weren't for naught. If Machado takes over for J.J. Hardy at shortstop in Baltimore, hits like a corner infielder and fields as well at an up-the-middle position as he has at third base, his WAR could exceed Trout's and Harper's by 2015.
Furthermore, health and attrition will play a major role in value, counting stats and perception moving forward.
If Harper continues to run into walls and Trout gains more weight next offseason, Machado could be looked at as the safest bet to stay healthy and productive for the long haul.
Last fall, Machado's name didn't belong in this conversation. Today, it does. For right now, it belongs third, behind Harper and Trout.
By 2015, expect Harper to be a notch above both Trout and Machado, but don't count out Manny in the race for the AL MVP in a few seasons.