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Tigers player preview: Dixon Machado needs to prove that 2014 was not a fluke

Machado had a breakout season last year, but were his improvements for real?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dixon Machado has never been highly thought of as a prospect. His wiry, slight frame impeded him from putting any sort of power on his swing, hampering his offensive numbers to the point that they would keep him and his impressive glove from seeing the field at the highest levels of competition. However, a career-best season at Double-A Erie has some curious if things could be turning around for the 23-year-old shortstop.

Originally signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009, Machado came stateside after one year in the Venezuelan Summer League. He hit .265 with a .325 on-base percentage across the two short season leagues in 2010, but spent the next three seasons hitting .235, .195, and .232, respectively. With little power to his name, many wondered if Machado was destined for a utility role.

Machado all but fell off the prospect radar with a poor 2013 season, hitting .215/.264/.295 in an injury-shortened campaign at Advanced-A Lakeland. However, he reinserted himself into the conversation with a breakout 2014 season, hitting .286/.375/.404 in 529 plate appearances across two levels. He spent most of his time at Double-A Erie, where he hit .305/.391/.442 with 23 doubles in 342 plate appearances.

Machado's offensive breakout at Erie did not follow the typical pattern where a player starts hot and then falls off afterward. He hit .230/.313/.348 in 183 plate appearances from his mid-May call-up until the Eastern League's All-Star break in mid-July. After the break, he hit .397/.481/.557 with four home runs -- one-third of his career total -- in 159 plate appearances. This included a scalding August where he hit .410 with a .515 on-base percentage in 25 games.

We're getting into small sample sizes now, but Machado's .443 BABIP in August was buoyed by a 30 percent line drive rate. He had a line drive rate in the teens in June and July, and his line drive rate in 187 plate appearances at Lakeland was a paltry 10.1 percent. Without video to determine if Machado made a mechanical adjustment or something of the sort, it's impossible to say whether his breakout was legitimate or just a hot month at the plate. It could even be both.

Contract status

Machado has yet to reach the majors and still has two minor league options remaining. The Tigers will undoubtedly burn one of those this year, as they have more than enough infielders without options already in camp. Hernan Perez or Andrew Romine could be on the chopping block if one proves unable to handle a "super utility" role.

Stats and projections
2014 (A+) 187 1 30 8 2 .252 .348 .333 .325
2014 (AA) 342 5 45 32 8 .305 .391 .442 .378
Steamer 26 0 2 2 0 .215 .269 .288 .252
ZiPS 432 4 43 31 6 .246 .307 .338 .287

Machado's bat has never been his strong suit, but the stark improvement in his numbers is supported by eye witness accounts that claim he is driving the ball with more authority. This doesn't mean that he's spraying the ball all over the park a la Miguel Cabrera, but a slight improvement in upper body strength has given him more bat speed. He will continue to struggle when he faces pitchers with plus fastball velocity, but his 2014 numbers indicate a fair amount of progress.

The uptick in offensive production is nice, but Machado's true value resides in his glove. He was our #10 prospect this year, where I gave a brief synopsis of his defensive abilities.

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. 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.

With Eugenio Suarez now in Cincinnati, Machado will likely spend most of his 2015 season as the Toledo Mud Hens' shortstop. This will be a solid test for him, as there are a number of older pitchers in the International League. His solid plate approach and pitch recognition skills -- he walked in 12 percent of his plate appearances last season -- should serve him well, but his ability to barrel the ball will determine his future.

Unfortunately for Machado, Jose Iglesias holds the keys to the Detroit shortstop empire. Even if Machado continues hitting like he did in 2014, there may not be a future for him in Detroit. A hot-hitting shortstop with plus defensive skills is quite an attractive trade piece, though. This is all purely hypothetical -- odds are Machado takes a step back in 2015 -- but it could provide an interesting wrinkle to the Tigers' plans this season.