MVP-Hopeful Manny Machado Looking the Part Early for Undefeated Orioles

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2016

Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado gestures as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins in Baltimore, Thursday, April 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

If you haven't added Manny Machado to your short list of American League MVP candidates, now is the time.

Seriously, do it.

Through the first five games of the 2016 season, the Baltimore Orioles' budding superstar is teasing next-level production. And he's carried the O's to a surprising undefeated start.

Yes, it's way early, the caveat that must accompany all April storylines. But when you add Machado's raw ability and recent track record to the mix, there's cause to believe this is far more than a small-sample mirage.

Machado won't turn 24 until July 6, meaning his prime is far on the horizon. And he's already padded his resume with two All-Star appearances, two top-10 MVP finishes and a pair of Gold Gloves at third base.

Machado truly broke out last season, bashing 35 home runs with an .861 OPS, 20 stolen bases and 14 defensive runs saved at the hot corner, per FanGraphs.

Machado's hot bat has helped the O's start the season 5-0.
Machado's hot bat has helped the O's start the season 5-0.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

If WAR is your thing, Machado's 6.8 mark was third-best in the Junior Circuit, behind only AL MVP Josh Donaldson and AL MVP runner-up Mike Trout.

So far in 2016, Machado owns a .429/.455/.904 slash line with three home runs. On Sunday, he went 4-for-4 with a homer, two runs scored and two RBI as the Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3.

If you zoom back to the end of 2015, he's on an eye-poppingly epic power binge, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:

Donaldson is raking in the early going as well, with four home runs and nine RBI for the potent Toronto Blue Jays. And if you think Trout's 4-for-20 start means anything, you have never watched that man play baseball.

It's too soon to handicap any awards race, but expect last season's top two finishers to make convincing cases once again. And don't be surprised if a veteran star such as Miguel Cabrera or a budding stud like Carlos Correa muscles into the picture.

Machado's squarely in that conversation, though. Soon, he might be starting that conversation.

Machado posted the third-best WAR in the AL in 2015, behind only MVP Josh Donaldson and MVP runner-up Mike Trout.
Machado posted the third-best WAR in the AL in 2015, behind only MVP Josh Donaldson and MVP runner-up Mike Trout.Matt Brown/Getty Images

Machado himself tempered the hype after Sunday's win. 

"It's the start of the season," he said, per MLB.com's Bill Chastain and Jeff Seidel. "We started off with a great homestand. We started off the year pretty well. Let's keep this ball rolling."

If the Orioles can in fact keep it rolling and challenge for supremacy in the crowded AL East, it would count as a mild surprise.

Their lineup is loaded with sluggers, including reigning MLB home run leader Chris Davis. But there are enough question marks, including in the starting rotation, for FanGraphs to project a modest 82-80 finish.

That might yet come to fruition, though Baltimore's starting pitchers have acquitted themselves more than capably, surrendering six earned runs in 23.2 innings with 28 strikeouts and six walks.

Machado, however, has been the biggest revelation. Or, more accurately, continuing revelation. 

Drafted as a shortstop with the third overall pick in 2010, Machado made his big league debut at the position last season. This year, he's already started one game at short in place of J.J. Hardy, who was dealing with a calf issue.

"It's kind of like a new toy for him," skipper Buck Showalter said of the defensive switch, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun.

Machado, winner of two Gold Gloves at third base, has begun getting reps at shortstop as well.
Machado, winner of two Gold Gloves at third base, has begun getting reps at shortstop as well.Nick Wass/Associated Press

If Machado ever makes a permanent move to shortstop, his power will profile even better there. For now, he's an unmitigated asset wherever he plays.

Yes, this is the part where we mention the knee surgeries Machado underwent in 2013 and 2014. But if there were lingering doubts about his durability, he answered them last season by appearing in all 162 games and making an MLB-leading 713 plate appearances.

As for his 2015 output, FanGraphs' Mike Podhorzer opined: "Nothing statistically stands out as a fluke...so can it get better? In fact, it could. With an average batted ball distance now over 290 feet, there might even be more power. Furthermore, if he could ever cure his pop-up problem, the batting average on balls in play could spike."

The numbers like Machado. The eyeball test definitely likes him. The Baltimore faithful have got to be loving him.

Yes, it's April. There are 157 games left to play. But if you're still wondering whether to jump on the Machado train, we've got two words for you: Do it.

Seriously.

All statistics current as of April 10 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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