Last season, five of the top seven prospects on Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospect rankings were shortstops. Part of this is circumstance, as there are always waves of star players at different positions coming through the minor leagues. But part of this is because of rarity; the shortstop position is the most demanding defensive position on the diamond, aside from catcher. Only the very best athletes on a team will play shortstop, and finding one that can hit and field is like finding a unicorn. Most teams have to settle for either offense or defense, or live with a mediocre combination of the two.
This scarcity is why Dixon Machado's 2014 season has people so excited. Long renowned for an excellent glove and a cannon for an arm, Machado's slight build limited his offensive upside. Even after a breakout season, his career slugging average in the minors is just .289. However, the soon-to-be 23 year old Machado has started to fill out somewhat, and will likely start the season at Triple A Toledo. If he can come close to replicating his .305/.391/.442 slash line from Double-A Erie in 2014, expect to see him shoot up all sorts of prospect rankings in the near future.
Machado is a 22 year old Venezuelan shortstop who was signed by the Tigers in 2008. He hit just .205 in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2009, but improved to a .265 average and .325 on-base percentage in his stateside debut in 2010. He continued to flounder at the plate in 2011 and 2012, but the Tigers continued to push him through the system thanks to his strong defensive abilities and excellent plate discipline. An injury-riddled 2013 season led many to write him off as a Tigers prospect. At 6'1" and just 170 pounds, Machado seemed to be too skinny to ever hit for enough power to play at the major leagues.
Then 2014 came along. Machado continued to show off his stellar glove, but also hit like never before. He hit .252 with a .348 on-base percentage in 187 plate appearances at Advanced-A Lakeland, then exploded to hit .305/.391/.442 with 29 extra base hits in 342 plate appearances at Double-A Erie. More important than Machado's bump in average and slugging percentage might be his continued reliance on a walk rate above 10 percent while striking out just 13.2 percent of the time.
Machado isn't quite as good of a defender as Jose Iglesias, but that's about the only knock anyone can put on his defensive abilities at shortstop. He is a great athlete with excellent range and superb instincts that help his range play up even more. Scouting reports glow about his ability to make difficult plays look routine. He also has a cannon for a throwing arm that has drawn a fair share of 80 grades. MLB.com graded his arm at a 60 on the 20 to 80 scale, but this is the only rating below 70 (plus-plus) I have come across. He would likely be an above average defensive shortstop at the MLB level right now.
There are major concerns about Machado's bat, but not due to a poor approach at the plate. Machado has excellent plate discipline, walking in 10 percent of his 2193 career plate appearances in the minor leagues. He has good pitch recognition skills and does a great job of making contact despite below average bat speed (a product of his slight body frame). He has only struck out in 13.5 percent of plate appearances, and lowered his strikeout rate to just 10.5 percent at Double A last year.
While Machado isn't a burner on the basepaths -- he only had 10 steals last season despite getting on base more than ever before in his career -- he gets out of the batter's box well and shows good instincts on the basepaths. Baseball Prospectus ($) praised his ability to take an extra base when available, and noted that he "won't run into outs."
If the above sounds too good to be true, it's because Machado has really struggled offensively throughout his minor league career. Even after his breakout year in 2014, he is a career .237/.319/.302 hitter. Of his 12 career home runs, half of them came last season. He had three extra base hits in 491 plate appearances in 2011, and had not slugged higher than .333 at any minor league level prior to his .442 slugging average at Double A last year. His walk rate is nice, but won't mean much if he can't hit higher than .220 with zero power at the MLB level.
Part of the reason for Machado's poor offensive numbers has simply been a lack of strength. His listed weight is 170 pounds, but I have a hard time believing that based on the pictures and videos I've seen. "Wiry" is putting it kindly when describing Machado's build. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; if anything, it is what makes him so smooth and athletic in the field. But he struggles to make hard contact at the plate, and the lack of power limits his upside.
Jordan did not even rank Machado on our top 30 prospect countdown last season, citing many of the concerns that still follow him even after a breakout 2014 season.
He doesn't hit the ball hard often enough, and hardly, if ever, drives it. While Machado still has the tools to become an every day shortstop, or even a good utility guy, it's hard to imagine him doing so unless the bat improves drastically.
Video via MLB Prospect Portal and MLB Farm
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
While it's possible that 2014 could have been a fluke, the Tigers will give Machado a chance to prove it wasn't at Triple-A Toledo. A repeat of his 2014 numbers could vault Machado into the conversation as the top prospect in the organization and one of the top young talents in baseball. Make no mistake: Machado will never be a starter in Detroit as long as Jose Iglesias in the picture, but a talented young shortstop has plenty of trade value. Regardless of how 2014 goes, Machado's glove will earn him a chance to prove himself at the big league level at some point. His bat will determine if he starts.
New addition: Endrys Briceno, right-handed pitcher
Briceno was a trendy pick to become one of the breakout stars of the Tigers' farm system prior to the 2014 season. We ranked him fourth on our prospect countdown last season, and many others were similarly bullish. Instead, Briceno only pitched 16 innings and underwent Tommy John surgery during the summer. Don't expect the soon-to-be 23 year old to do much pitching this season, but a loose, easy pitching motion and mid-90s fastball make him a potential mid-rotation starter if everything breaks right. Unfortunately, that "if" became a lot bigger after last year's setback, but Briceno could still have a big league future ahead of him if the velocity returns.