SARASOTA, Fla. -- He's one of the five best position players in the American League. He's also only 21 years old. In two short years, Manny Machado has blown us away with his incredible gifts.
It's not just Machado's offensive production, either. Here's an example. He was the absolute best defensive player in the game last season, playing third base as well as almost anyone has ever played it.
That's what the scouts who saw Machado regularly said. That's also what the advanced metrics -- for instance, Fangraphs.com -- confirmed.
Funny thing about that. Machado is actually not a third baseman. He played shortstop in the Minor Leagues, and the Baltimore Orioles thought he'd be a fabulous one. He still might.
But when Machado was summoned to the big leagues on Aug. 9, 2012, the Orioles had one of the best defensive shortstops in the game in J.J. Hardy. So they put Machado at third for a couple of games in the Minor Leagues and brought him right to the big leagues.
To watch a 20-year-old kid adjust so naturally, to see him play a new spot on the field and still contribute offensively as the O's rolled back to the postseason for the first time since 1997 was a thing of beauty.
And then last season, Machado made it look easy. He led the AL with 51 doubles and hit .283. And, yes, he played spectacular defense at third.
Machado's Wins Above Replacement, according to BaseballReference.com, was fifth highest in the AL among offensive players, behind only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera. How's that for special company?
Machado's season ended on Sept. 23, when he suffered a left knee injury after landing on the first-base bag awkwardly during a game against the Rays. To see him crumpled on the turf was a breathtakingly awful scene, not just to the Orioles, but to everyone who loves this game.
From the moment Machado underwent surgery, the O's knew he might not be available for Opening Day. In the end, that was just a day. An irrelevant one.
Machado is simply too important to the franchise to worry about short-term goals. He'd be back when his knee allowed him to be back. He has had an incredible recovery, so much so that the Orioles had begun to think he might even make it back for Opening Day.
That timetable was slowed down Saturday morning when Baltimore manager Buck Showalter revealed that Machado hadn't been able to run for a few days and was dealing with soreness in the knee, perhaps as a result of scar tissue.
The good news is that the left knee seems stable, that the surgically repaired ligament is sound. If that's the case -- Showalter said it was -- this setback probably simply is part of the healing process.
On Saturday, Showalter wouldn't count Machado out for Opening Day, in part, because the kid has shown the O's over and over that he's special, that he has the ability to do things others can't.
All the Orioles really want is Machado to make a full recovery, to get back to being the impact player he was last season. If he does that this season, whether it's May 1 or June 1, they'll take it.
This is a team that's going to be in contention all season long. Even without Machado, they have enough firepower to hang in the AL East race.
They have a winning culture, too, and that's a huge deal when important players go down. Good teams somehow circle the wagons and work their way through the adversity.
That's the advantage of having clubhouse leaders like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis and Chris Davis. That's also the advantage of having a deep pitching staff and one of baseball's most creative front-office minds, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
The five AL East teams -- especially the O's, Rays and Red Sox -- seem so evenly matched that we could be in for an extraordinary year of pennant-race baseball.
Regardless of when Machado joins the fun, Baltimore wants him to be healthy. If he is, he could be the difference in a playoff race.
So days like this aren't any big deal. The Orioles want Machado healthy and in their lineup for at least another decade. They believe they'll get plenty out of him in 2014, but they're not going to sweat a small setback.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.