Of the many reasons posited for the lack of activity in the free agent market this year is the desire of clubs to hoard money and position themselves under the luxury tax to prepare for next year's free agent class, which is likely to be historic. Some of the best players to hit the market in a decade or more will be available, many of them when most a long-term contract will be covered by the players' prime, as opposed to just two or three.
One player that matches that description is Manny Machado. Entering the last year of his contract with the Baltimore Orioles, Machado will only be 26 when he hits the market next winter—impossibly young by the standards of most elite free agents. He's a three-time All-Star and has made a reputation as one of the elite defenders at third base.
At third base. That's not the position he'll be playing this season.
Machado was a shortstop throughout his minor league career before being shifted to the hot corner on his call-up in 2012 due to JJ Hardy occupying short. But Machado has always wanted to move back to his boyhood position, and this year Machado successfully lobbied to be moved back to shortstop. He will swap positions with Tim Beckham, who played there a year ago.
Machado is more than capable of handling such a change. He played over 200 games at short as a prospect before he got to the big leagues. His talent is immense. The transition should, frankly, be easy.
But a position change always carries risks for the player involved. And with Machado heading into what could be the mother of all contract years, there could be a risk that goes deeper than what he does on the field.
Playing with fire?
Put aside the idea that Machado will struggle with the change from a baseball standpoint. That is highly unlikely. But Machado's move to short could hurt him in other ways next winter.
The world has come to know Machado as a third baseman. Most of the teams that have spent the last year to year-and-a-half creating the salary flexibility to sign him have done so thinking of a long-term need at third base.
There was likely some scrambling going on in front offices around the league, then, when Baltimore Sun beat writer Eduardo A. Encina tweeted that Machado told him the ability to play shortstop will have a role in where he decides to play next year.
But Machado has to be careful here. If he insists on playing shortstop in 2018, it could seriously hamper his bargaining position as a free agent.
As just said, the teams that have been the subject of the most talk surrounding Machado have all had the need, or at least the potential for need, at third base. They are far more settled at the shortstop position.
Take, for instance, the New York Yankees. While USA Today's Bob Nightengale sees no roadblocks between Machado playing short in the Bronx next year—indeed, he considers Machado being in pinstripes a mortal lock—it's probably not as cut-and-dried as it looks. Didi Gregorius has played well as the anchor of the Yankee infield the last three years and is developing into a permanent clubhouse presence. He could be moved to second base, but will he consider that a slight? Would he want to continue playing short, either in New York or elsewhere?
Another team considered a possible destination for Machado, the Philadelphia Phillies, isn't necessarily in the market for a shortstop. Top prospect JP Crawford will get his chance to make the position his own this season. The uncertainty in their infield is at third base, where Maikel Franco will get one last chance to prove he can live up to the promise of his rookie year. While the potential to move Crawford to third if Franco fails this year exists—as does the potential for Crawford himself to flop hard enough to pursue Machado as a shortstop to replace him—in a perfect world Matt Klentak would plug Machado in at third base after moving on from Franco.
Other teams that have been less prominently linked to him would have to make similar moves. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, have a budding superstar at short in Corey Seager. The Chicago Cubs have Addison Russell there, although trading him to replenish the farm system is probably an easier and better way to make room for Machado in that scenario—if Theo Epstein can find a dance partner in a trade.
If he were to insist on playing shortstop, it's entirely possible that Machado will compromise his bargaining position. If enough of the teams that would contend for his signature are content with the status quo there—or if the internal politics of the team prevent them from being able to guarantee Machado a spot at the position—there may end up being fewer teams for Machado to play against each other in a bidding war. As JD Martinez learned the hard way this year, teams won't bid against themselves.
Of course, some team could also present Machado an offer with enough crooked numbers and zeroes on it to make him fall back in love with third base. Or someone could make the moves necessary to get him to play short and damn the torpedoes. We'll have to see what the future holds but if Machado sticks to his guns too hard, he could end up hampering himself in one of the biggest free agent markets in the game's history.