It is only natural that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the 18-year-old phenoms of the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, are measured against each other by fans and media members. They were drafted first and third overall, respectively, in the top-heavy 2010 draft. They were teammates on the 2009 Team USA 18-and-under team that won a world championship. They might be talked about in the same breath for the next decade or more.
With that in mind, one might be tempted to view Machado's promotion from low Class A Delmarva to high Class A Frederick — which was announced following Machado's strong performance in Tuesday night's South Atlantic League All-Star game — as pushing the talented, five-tool shortstop ahead of Harper in the developmental race to the majors.
"It's human nature: You want to move fast, but at the same time you realize you shouldn't go too fast," Machado said earlier this season. "There are certain things I've still got to learn. I need to slow it down at a certain point."
While Machado headed to the Carolina League for the start of Frederick's second half, Harper remained in Hagerstown, despite superior statistics and more "Sally" League games under his belt (38 for Machado, who missed nearly two months with a knee injury; 64 for Harper).
But the promotion of Machado says little, if anything, about his career trajectory in relation to Harper's. The biggest difference between the two players is obvious: Unlike Machado, Harper is simultaneously adjusting to the professional life while also learning a new position, right field, after an amateur career spent mostly at catcher. Catching the ball and throwing the ball are the easy part; it's the subtleties of the position that require time to grasp.
"The biggest thing to learn is understanding situations, which he's gotten better at throughout the season," said Hagerstown Manager Brian Daubach. "Knowing when to make all-out throws, and when to take it easy. Knowing which base to throw to. He's improving at it every day."
Machado, on the other hand, has always been a shortstop. If anything, he is trying to prove he can hang onto that position, in the face of speculation by a segment of the scouting community that he should be moved to third base.
The Nationals do have some concerns about the field conditions at Potomac, their high Class A Carolina League affiliate — particularly since the primary problem area is in right field, where Harper would be patrolling. One Nationals official said last week that the notion of moving Harper straight to Class AA Harrisburg is more than media speculation. Under such a scenario, Harper could essentially pull a double-shift at Hagerstown, remaining there through the period during which he would otherwise play at Potomac, before moving to Harrisburg in late summer.
One thing is undeniable about Machado, as it relates to Harper: While Harper was the biggest media attraction at the All-Star game, the night belonged to Machado. Playing in front of his home fans, he got the biggest cheers and had the biggest presence, going 2-for-4 and making an outstanding play in the field. And on Thursday, he took one step closer to the majors and, for now, one step ahead of his fellow phenom.