Manny Machado looking at the bigger picture as he works his way back to playing third base

PEORIA, Ariz. — Manny Machado started 105 games at third base and 33 at designated hitter last season, his first with a stint on the injured list since 2014. Including appearances at shortstop, he started at least 144 games in the field in six of the previous seven full seasons. His candidacy for the Hall of Fame will be built on a combination of rare durability, offensive production and defensive stardom.

So, after Machado’s surgery to alleviate tennis elbow in his right arm, how often will the San Diego Padres play him at third in 2024? That remains far from determined. Machado, now almost five months removed from his extensor tendon repair procedure, appears to be looking at a bigger picture than simply aiming to be at his usual position on March 20.

“I haven’t even thought about that far ahead,” Machado said Saturday after DHing and going 1-for-2 with a double in his spring debut. “Honestly, it’s a matter of what my health can do. I think we’re doing everything possible right now in the weight room, in the training room, so that when I do get on the field I’m playing every single day.

“It’s a long season, and I know (Padres manager Mike Shildt) has been talking about how it’s going to take all of to take us to where we want to get to so we’re playing in October and we’re playing healthy. So, whether that’s taking some days off here and there, it’s always good — I’m not going to say it’s not — but I’m getting ready to play 162 games and whether it’s playing every day at third base, getting some DH spots here and there, it’s just a matter of trying to get healthy.”

At the time of Machado’s surgery, the Padres provided a recovery estimate of four to six months. Machado, who has been throwing for about eight weeks and swinging for longer than that, has yet to report any major issues in his rehabilitation. Still, after his scheduled departure from Saturday’s Cactus League game, he declined to make any definitive pronouncements about whether he intends to be at third base during the season opener in Seoul.

“I’m not sure,” Machado said. “It’s three weeks (away). I still got a bunch of at-bats to get through and a lot of obstacles to hurdle over. It was a good day today. We’ll see how I bounce back tomorrow. … It’s not really about what I can do out there. I can swing, I can throw. It’s just a matter of how you bounce back from it.”

Manny Machado bats in the first inning Saturday. (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

Machado at least can say he is substantially more comfortable than he was last season. His tennis elbow first flared up even earlier than that, but the condition worsened in 2023. “Finally feeling normal on some level,” Machado said. “Not completely normal but better than I did before.” It showed immediately Saturday afternoon: Swinging at the first pitch he saw, Machado struck an opposite-field drive that caromed off the warning track for a ground-rule double.

“That’s Manny Machado, man,” Shildt said. “He’s a dude for a reason.”

The Padres, after losing Juan Soto, Blake Snell and Josh Hader, no longer have as many proven dudes. They might have an emerging one in Jairo Iriarte, who breezed through a seven-pitch inning in his Cactus League debut Saturday. The right-hander has evaluators buzzing about his high-octane repertoire, and the Padres will consider him for both their Opening Day rotation and their Opening Day bullpen.

“I’m waiting for the opportunity to show everybody that I’m ready,” Iriarte said through interpreter Danny Sanchez. At 22, the prospect is unlikely to hold much back this spring.

Machado, on the other hand, will continue to observe a gradual progression. He is 31 now, and he and his wife, Yainee, are expecting first-time parents.

As for when he can be expected to resume regularly playing third base, that remains to be seen.

“There’s ups and downs obviously with every rehab program,” Machado said. “There’s going to be some good days, there’s going to be some bad days. What’s worrying is just waiting nine innings to go out there and get cold, get hot, get cold, get hot. I think that’s where you kind of stick with the throwing program, build it up, make sure your arm is strong and capable to hold on those long innings day in, day out, just trying to recover as fast as you can. And that’s, like, the next step that we’re trying to take.”

(Top photo: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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