Chicago – It took him about a week to get over it. A bleak week spent moping around his house, stomach in knots, asking himself some very serious questions about his future.
This was in early December, 2013. The Tigers made a big splash signing free agent closer Joe Nathan. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, Dixon Machado was designated for assignment.
Age 21, after five years in the organization, after a rough season hitting just .215 at High-A Lakeland, Machado was cut loose. He was blindsided and distraught.
“When they told me they took me off the 40-man, my wife was pregnant at that moment,” Machado said before the game against the White Sox Sunday. “I was sitting for a week inside my house thinking what do I need to do?
“It was hard. I was crying and everything because your dream is to get to the big leagues and when you get there, they just took you off like that. It was hard at that moment.”
It was also supremely motivating.
“That was motivating for sure,” he said. “You know you’ve got to do it, not just for yourself, but you’ve got a family to take care of. You are playing for them, too.”
Machado cleared waivers and rejoined the Tigers minor league system with a vengeance. He started the season in Lakeland, but was quickly promoted to Double-A Erie, where he hit .305 and showed some power for the first time in his career – six home runs and 31 doubles.
“And they put me back on the 40-man,” Machado said. “It’s a process. I’m glad those things already happened. I’m glad the things that happened last year already happened. Just keep looking forward.”
Machado made his big-league debut in 2015, rode the Detroit-to-Toledo shuttle for two years, spent last year in a utility role and now, finally, at age 26, is the Tigers’ every day second baseman.
And he’s thriving. Entering play Sunday, he was hitting .300 with a .500 slugging percentage. He reached base each of the seven games the Tigers have played and has popped six doubles. He had 31 plate appearances by April 7; he got his 31st plate appearance on May 14 last season.
“One hundred percent,” he said when asked if getting consistent at-bats has helped fuel his fast start. “You are learning every day. You are competing every day. Every day you face a different pitcher and you learn something. Whether you have success or not, you are still learning every day.
“I am just happy to be in this situation, happy for the opportunity and thank God everything is clicking. But I know it’s early in the season. I just have to keep working hard.”
Machado will tell you, and the Tigers scouts and player development people will agree, he’s always had the talent to produce like he is now. His defensive skills have never been questioned; in fact, if the Tigers were to trade Jose Iglesias, Machado would likely become the regular shortstop.
The offensive production came slower. But it came steadily. As his body matured, as he built strength, he started driving balls into gaps. He had 164 hits in two seasons at Triple-A Toledo (2015, 2016) with 50 doubles and eight home runs.
The last piece of the puzzle, for Machado, was self-belief. And that didn’t come until last season.
“You can say you believe in yourself, but you really have to believe it,” he said. “Sometimes you say, ‘I know I can play.’ But you don’t really believe in yourself.”
It’s hope. You hope you can succeed at the big-league level. And, as Machado found out the early part of last season, hope is a bad strategy. He was hitting .118 on May 3. He’d played in just 10 games, four starts. He had 20 plate appearances and was 2 for 17.
Right around that time, Ramon Santiago, now the club’s first base coach, gave Machado a copy of the book, “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence,” By Gary Mack and David Casstevens.
That book had a huge influence on Machado, and he still uses it as a touchstone reference. His season began to brighten considerably in May. For a three-month stretch (May 7 through July 7), Machado hit .389, with a .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging and .900 OPS in 55 plate appearances.
“The only different thing I was doing in that stretch was preparing myself more mentally,” he said. “Obviously, I was doing my work in the cage and all that. But I was more believing in myself, that I can hit, I can do this. I was just competing.
“Everybody who is in the big leagues is good. You don’t get here because of luck or anything. I just started believing in myself and going out and trusting that I could do stuff.”
That belief was fortified by the Tigers entrusting the everyday second base job to him after Ian Kinsler was traded. And it’s been even more fortified by his hot start at the plate this season.
“He’s a really confident young man,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He just handles himself well. He doesn’t get panicky about anything. I like his calmness on the field. He’s a very talented young man and he works extremely hard and that’s a good place to start in terms of developing a young player.”
Gardenhire has kept Machado hitting ninth in the order all season and won’t alter that any time soon. But long-term, he sees him as a lead-off hitter.
“I think eventually we will work our way toward that if everything keeps going like this,” he said. “But right now he’s swinging good and the lineup is doing fine. I am not going to screw with his head. I don’t want him to change anything right now.”
Gardenhire has seen it before. A player moves up to the top of the lineup and suddenly he changes his approach at the plate. He takes more pitches, gets behind in the count and starts to scuffle.
“I don’t want to deal with any of that right now,” he said, in reference to Machado. “The young man is doing fine. I don’t want to turn the lineup around. Ultimately, you want to work your way up to where he’s a top-of-the-order type guy.
“That’s probably in his future. But we’ll just leave him alone right now.”
That’s fine with Machado. Perhaps the quietest player in the Tigers’ clubhouse, he is more than content lying in the weeds at the bottom of the batting order, knowing that every time he gets a hit or reaches base, he’s turning the lineup over.
“We move our lineups around anyway and there’s going to be times when (lead-off hitter Leonys) Martin is not in there,” Gardenhire said. “That’s when Machy would be right up there. We did that a lot in spring training.
“But our lineup is rolling over pretty good right now. Martin and (Jeimer) Candelario and the big guy (Miguel Cabrera) are getting chances to knock in runs. When those things happen, it’s OK.”