Mired in a five-game losing streak and all but eliminated from the AL wild card race, the Baltimore Orioles were dealt a blow on Monday that could affect them beyond this September.
All-Star third baseman Manny Machado suffered an injury to his left knee when he stepped awkwardly on first base running out a ground ball. His knee buckled inward and he immediately went down to the ground, eventually being taken off the field on a stretcher with what certainly looked to be a serious injury.
He flew back to Baltimore with the team on Monday night and will undergo an MRI on Tuesday, but all signs point to this injury ending his 2013 with potential to cut into his 2014 campaign, depending its severity.
We won't speculate here as to what the injury is, but as SI.com points out, an ACL could take six months or more to rehab. If that's the case, we're talking about, at the very least, him being questionable for the start of next season.
Let's play devil's advocate for a moment here and assume it ends up being something serious and he's not only questionable for the start of the season but winds up missing significant time in 2014 as well. Where does that leave the Orioles in their quest to return to the postseason?
Machado had fallen off a bit in the second half, hitting .240/.277/.370 since the All-Star break, but he was still enjoying a terrific all-around season.
He had played in all 156 of the team's games, and posted a .283/.314/.432 line with 51 doubles, 14 home runs and 71 RBI. On top of that, he was again among the best defensive third basemen in the league with a 30.9 UZR, which was tops in the MLB among all positions.
It's safe to assume that the 21-year-old would also have continued to improve his approach at the plate next season, as he still has plenty of room for a bump in batting average and OBP even with the terrific numbers he put up this season.
The Orioles have plenty of fire power offensively, but in what will almost certainly be an ultra-competitive AL East and AL wild card race once again next year, losing a six-win player for even a couple of months at the beginning of the season could wind up being the difference between a postseason spot and not making the playoffs when every win means so much.
The team does have some in-house options as far as replacing him, with DH Danny Valencia perhaps the most likely candidate to see expanded playing time.
Valencia has stepped into an everyday role over the past month or so at DH, and has hit .322/.349/.525 with nine RBI in 17 games in the month of September. He spent 2011 as the Minnesota Twins' everyday third baseman, so he has some experience at the position.
However, he's a subpar defender at best and he posted a -10.4 UZR in 2011 while committing 18 errors, so he'd represent a significant downgrade in the field.
Prospect Jonathan Schoop, who is viewed as the future at second base and has spent the bulk of his time in the minors, has played 24 games at third base in the minors. Bringing back veteran Brian Roberts on a low-cost, one-year deal and sliding Schoop to third base until Machado returns could also be an option.
Regardless of how the Orioles were to deal with Machado's potential absence for an extended period of time in 2014, there's no way they'd truly be able to replace him.
Thanks to an inconsistent pitching staff, the Orioles have relied on offensive fire power and terrific team defense the past two seasons. Machado represents one of the brightest young hitters in the game, and perhaps the premier defensive player at his position.
With the Red Sox, Rays, Tigers and A's all looking strong for 2014 and the Yankees, Indians, Royals, Blue Jays, Angels, Rangers and even Mariners all capable of being in a position to contend for a postseason spot, being without Machado for any extended time could easily be enough for the Orioles playoff hopes in 2014 to be derailed early.
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