Buster Olney's top 10 third basemen: Stars sizzle at the hot corner

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This will be a memorable year in the life of Manny Machado. Sometime in 2018, the Baltimore Orioles will probably trade him to a World Series contender and give him the same opportunity that Justin Verlander had after landing with the Houston Astros. Then Machado will become a free agent in November and sometime before the new year, he will begin to field offers for tens of millions of dollars -- or maybe even hundreds of millions. He will be rewarded for all of the work that he put in as a kid and in his years with the Orioles, all of that time he spent in rehabilitation from two serious knee injuries.

But the return on his investment in himself may not max out unless Machado digs in and performs more consistently. In order to get the sort of record-setting contract he could pursue, Machado needs to have a strong launch year into the open market, as an on-field response to some of the questions that executives have about him -- heard as we prepared our top-10 list of third basemen.

“To be honest, he looks bored sometimes,” said one evaluator.

Said another: “I think he needs a different challenge.”

Alex Rodriguez was Machado’s idol when he was growing up as a kid in Miami, and the comparisons between the two as players are natural because they were raised in the same area, as wildly talented, thriving power-hitting infielders. But there seems to be one enormous and important difference between Alex Rodriguez and Machado.

Throughout A-Rod’s career, nobody ever questioned his focus. Ever. Potential investors viewed Rodriguez as someone of superlative skill and total commitment, someone who would do whatever he needed to do daily to be great. That helped him land two record-setting contracts -- his $252 million deal with the Rangers, which he opted out of to negotiate a $275 million monster with the Yankees.

Last year was a challenge for Machado, for sure. Early in the year, he was at the center of the Orioles’ beanball stuff with the Red Sox after colliding with Dustin Pedroia on a slide. The Orioles had the worst rotation in the majors and for the Baltimore position players, there must’ve been a Groundhog Day feel to the season: By the fourth or fifth inning on most days, Machado and the other position players would be staring at an early deficit of three or four runs. By September, the Orioles sometimes looked like the walking dead, Machado among them.

This was reflected in the feedback of evaluators solicited for their rankings of the top 10 third basemen. For some, Machado was listed fourth or fifth or even sixth, with caveats. At his best, they believe, he is the most talented defender at the position, and capable of big offensive numbers -- but that he sometimes will drift through days or weeks, particularly in the way he works through his plate appearances. His production in 2017 was remarkably erratic.

Machado’s OPS by month

April .767

May .629

June .759

July .870

August 1.039

September .537

He finished with a .259 average and a .310 on-base percentage, and as ESPN Researcher Paul Hembekides notes, his performance outside of hitter-friendly Camden Yards was flat-out awful last season -- a .268 on-base percentage in 336 plate appearances, with an Adjusted OPS+ of 80, well below major league average.

He’s going to get a great contract and make more money than almost all of his peers, because of how special a defender he is, whether he’s at shortstop (where the Orioles are expected to play him this year) or at third base. But Machado could help himself by being more consistent, in a sport that probably values that trait -- and compensates for it -- more than any other.

Our top-10 list of third basemen, which is based on the input of evaluators and the insight and data generated by ESPN’s Paul Hembekides, Sarah Langs and Mark Simon. And of all the tasks in this series, trying to rank the third basemen is the most impossible.