For two months, the Phillies have played rookie second baseman Scott Kingery at shortstop. They were using a shortstop at third base, too, at least until an errant fastball broke J.P. Crawford's left hand two weeks ago.
So, maybe the question of Manny Machado's best position — third base or shortstop? — matters less to the Phillies than any of his other suitors.
Machado will lead the Baltimore Orioles into town Tuesday night, three days shy of his 26th birthday, and for two games, the Phillies can dream of what it would be like for him to play here on a regular basis. It's widely known throughout the game that they covet the superstar slugger and will put on a full-court press for him if not before the July 31 trade deadline then once he reaches free agency in November.
As he has all season for the last-place Orioles, Machado will play shortstop against the Phillies. Cynics, to say nothing of some rival scouts, believe Machado was motivated to move back to short after spending most of the last six seasons at third base because it would boost his chances for a $400 million payday in free agency this winter. But Machado has claimed he didn't have such selfish intentions, insisting in spring training that shortstop is "where my heart is."
Regardless, it hasn't been his best spot on the field, at least according to advanced metrics. At third base, Machado is a two-time Gold Glove winner. Entering the weekend, he ranked last among 25 qualifying shortstops in both Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved (18 runs worse than league average) and Fangraphs' ultimate zone rating (6.2 runs below average). His defensive efficiency, defined by Hardball Times as the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that were successfully converted into an out, was similarly subpar, with a .735 mark that was below the league average of .772.
The eye test has been kinder. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Machado is bigger than the standard shortstop, one theory for why the metrics are so poor. But Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, and others were successful at shortstop despite their size. And an informal survey of one National League scout, one American League scout, and one AL manager revealed a picture of Machado as an exemplary defender at third base but still a reliable one at shortstop.
"Manny can play shortstop in the Ripken way: study like crazy and position yourself to hide your shortcomings," the AL scout said. "He has enough arm, just doesn't have [Francisco] Lindor's feet or [Brandon] Crawford's or [Carlos] Correa's hand speed with the glove."
The NL scout shared that he gives third baseman Machado a grade of 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale and bumps him down to 60 at shortstop (50 is considered average). The scout described Machado as "a good shortstop, a great third baseman," an evaluation echoed by the AL scout and the manager.
But while all three concurred that Machado is capable of playing either position, the AL scout had a clear preference.
"Personally, I would put him at third," he said. "He has enough bat for third and is a plus-plus glove at third and just average at short with a plus bat."
Machado would fit for the Phillies at either spot on the left side of the infield, and everyone knows how much manager Gabe Kapler values positional versatility. There's a sense, though, within the industry that the Phillies view Machado as a shortstop, at least at the outset of any deal with him.
Kingery has improved since taking over at short in May, but his natural position remains second base. The Phillies' frustration with stagnating third baseman Maikel Franco persists, which is why they planned to get a longer look at Crawford at third base before his injury.
Team president Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak, director of player development Joe Jordan, and a few other Phillies officials worked for the Orioles in 2010 when Machado was drafted as a shortstop. Back then, Jordan was the Orioles' scouting director and had a strong influence in selecting Machado with the third overall pick.
Machado said earlier this season that he maintains an "awesome" bond with Jordan, making sure to speak to him whenever they see each other. And the Phillies know how those relationships can pay off. It helped in their pursuit of free-agent starter Jake Arrieta in the spring.
Money speaks louder than anything else, of course, and the Phillies are flush with cash. Owner John Middleton is itching to make a splash at precisely the same time that two franchise-changing talents — Machado and Bryce Harper — are about to dive into the free-agent pool, contributing to the popular narrative that they will open the Citizens Bank Park vault for whichever marquee player they prefer.
But the Phillies might be able to gain an additional advantage in the Machado derby if they truly believe he can stay at his preferred position, an opinion that wouldn't seem unreasonable to many observers regardless of what the metrics say.
"He is OK at shortstop," the AL manager said. "Looks like the situation [with the Orioles], losing, is taking his energy away."