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Draft Round Battles: Machado Vs. Lawrie

Let's get this out of the way right now --- if you play in one of the rare fantasy leagues that includes defensive statistics, then Manny Machado is your guy, end of story.  Brett Lawrie was a pretty strong defender himself in 2011-12 before posting a -0.1 UZR/150 in 2013, but yeah, Machado ran streets ahead with the glove last season thanks to a whopping 31.8 UZR/150 and a record 35 runs saved, earning himself both a Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible Award.

But, that's fielding.  Odds are your league won't be decided by runs saved or RZR but rather by the standard 5x5 stats.  That makes this matchup of AL East third basemen all the more interesting.

Lawrie has the early lead in average draft position, according to the good folks at Mock Draft Central.  Lawrie's 151.71 ADP tops Machado's 167.67 ADP, which is perhaps surprising given how much hype Machado received for both his bat and his glove last season, while Lawrie was alternately injured, in the minors or terrible for almost the entire season.  I'd suspect that some early drafters are worried about Machado's offseason knee surgery, which could keep him sidelined until late April.  I'm not counting Machado's knee as a major factor in this draft battle, as while he is likely to miss at least a bit of time, Lawrie has been prone to injury himself over his first two full Major League seasons.  Call the health question a wash for now, at least until we know more about Machado's rehab process.

Durability obviously wasn't a question for Machado in 2013, when he made 710 plate appearances (and a league-high 667 at-bats) and finished the campaign with 14 homers, 71 RBI, 88 runs and a league-best 51 doubles.  Good counting stats to be sure, except for the fact that almost all of Machado's damage came in the first two months.  Machado had an .892 OPS going into May 31, but over the Orioles' final 102 games, he managed just a .666 OPS (yikes, there's a bad omen).  He hit .283/.314/.432 overall, a line that his 99 OPS+ would indicate as slightly below even league average at the plate.

Of course, I note these stats with the giant caveat that Machado only turned 21 last July, so even slightly below-average offensive numbers are pretty impressive for a guy that young.  We may not have even scratched the surface of what Machado can do at the plate, so I expect an improved performance in 2014.  The question is, how much improvement will we see, given that even in his (albeit brief) minor league career, Machado only hit .263/.344/.432 with 23 homers and 114 RBI over 928 PA.  Those numbers are perfectly fine for a shortstop and they're not even bad for a third baseman, though they pale next to some of the big boppers available at the hot corner. 

While much of Machado's prospect hype came from his glove, his offensive prowess in early 2013 (especially in hitting doubles) showed a new dimension to his game.  Ironically, Lawrie's career has begun in the opposite way --- he was a ballyhooed minor league hitter who has instead drawn notice for his glove in the bigs.  After bursting onto the scene with a .953 OPS over 171 PA in 2011, Lawrie has hit a much more modest .265/.320/.401 over 978 PA in 2012-13.  Injuries certainly played a part, as did some maturity issues that Lawrie reportedly put behind him after his terrible first half forced him to overhaul his swing.  Those swing changes led to an .892 OPS in August but another fade in September.

Lawrie finished his year with 11 homers and a .254/.315/.397 slash line, one of many disappointing campaigns amidst the epic fail that was the 2013 Blue Jays season.  Still, as bad as Lawrie's season was perceived to be, he still finished only 34 OPS points and three homers behind Machado, despite the Baltimore phenom's 268 extra PA.  Lawrie also had a higher walk rate and lower strikeout rate, so if you factor in the BABIP gap (Lawrie had a .280 BABIP, Machado had a .322), you can make the case that Lawrie was actually the better hitter last season.

The age question also factors in Lawrie's evaluation, as he's only entering his age-24 season.  There's still plenty of time for him to display the prodigious hitting stroke he showed in his minor league career.  A healthy and focused Lawrie should, on paper, dwarf Machado at the plate.  Provided both men play roughly the same number of games, I'd expect Lawrie to comfortably top Machado in homers and steals, probably top him in RBIs and the runs/average categories are up in the air.

Assuming that Lawrie can avoid the injury bug and general malaise that has plagued the Jays franchise over the last two seasons, he stands as a strong fantasy breakout candidate for 2014.  While I hope Machado returns from his surgery at 100 percent and we get to fully enjoy his eye-popping talent, I tend to agree with my RA colleague Andrew Gephardt that even a fully fit Machado might still not be due for his proper breakout.  Let's take Lawrie in this draft round battle and let's hope that both guys reach their potential so we can revisit this matchup for several years down the road.



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