A decision about a rookie should never be made because of Spring Training. The mini season that is Spring Training is a lesson in what the phrase small sample size means. Remember, Damian Rolls once hit .438 in the spring and won the third base job for the Tampa Bay Rays. Rolls would go on to put together a .628 OPS in parts of five seasons as a big leaguer. The point? Spring Training statistics can be misleading. That’s why looking at 22 year old Jonathan Schoop’s spring statistics can’t be the determining factor of whether or not he heads north with the club.
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Those statistics are awfully gaudy however. Through 13 Spring games, he is batting .423/.438/.692. That line is more like one compiled in the old Sports Talk Baseball video game rather than against any sort of Major League competition. They are so gaudy, that they really have no relevance. The question of whether or not Schoop deserves a Major League roster spot is answered, of course, by ability and readiness, but also how he fits into the Orioles’ lineup.
The ability is not an issue. The 6’2”, 210 pound 22 year old is part of the new breed of powerful middle infielders that are becoming more commonplace around Major League Baseball. Signed as a 17 year old by the Orioles, Schoop has posted a career .268/.335/.407 batting line across five Minor League seasons. In those five seasons, his power has developed, posting a career best .460 slugging percentage last season over three levels. And, he did add one Major League home run to his resume in his brief time in Baltimore that spanned 14 at bats. By no means is he a polished hitter. Like other powerful middle infielders, his patience at the plate isn’t very strong. While he has shown he can take a walk as evidenced by walk rates of 8 and 9 percent in 2011 and 2012, his 2013 season a bit alarming as he posted just a 4.5 percent walk rate at the triple-A level. And, he has posted a strikeout rate between 18 and 20 percent over the past three years.
But, given his age, his power, and the fact that he has shown the ability to take a walk, Schoop’s strengths far outweigh his potential shortcomings. As a second baseman, his power is already above average. As he ages and enters his prime seasons, that power projects to be above average. In fact, two projection systems, ZIPS and Oliver, project that Schoop’s power already translates at the Major League level. ZIPS has Schoop hitting 14 home runs in 110 games at the Major League level in 2014. That comes with a .248/.301/.400 batting line. Oliver projects Schoop to hit 25 home runs in 143 games played along with a .238/.294/.417 batting line. A .400 slugging percentage may seem pedestrian, but consider that just 12 second basemen posted a slugging percentage of .400 or better last season. Even with the subpar on base percentage and the likely high strikeout total, Schoop’s power would already put in him in the upper half of power amongst second basemen. The ability is there.
Whether or not he is ready won’t really be answered until the Orioles actually give him a chance at the Major League level. There will be weaknesses. He won’t hit for a high average. He will likely struggle to post an on base percentage over .300 initially. And, he will be prone to the strikeout.
But, he is the right fit for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles enter the season with an interesting lineup. Last season, it was a lineup that finished 10th in the American League in on base percentage, but third in slugging percentage. The team lead the American League with 212 home runs and was fourth in runs scored. They return the core of the lineup and have added Nelson Cruz to replace the committee of designated hitters and David Lough to replace Nate Mclouth. The 2013 Orioles got best case scenario seasons from JJ Hardy, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones. Matt Wieters also gave a typical season. While the Orioles have upgraded the rotation and the bullpen, it will need the offense to power its way through to contention. It is not a finesse offense. It is not one predicated on high on base percentages. It is very much a slugging team. Can they get best case scenario seasons from the core once again? Machado is slowly working his way back to health. Davis was otherworldly for most of last season. Both should be able to provide elite production, but they could fall short of last season’s standards and still produce an above average season.
The Orioles will look for added power from Nelson Cruz and should look to second base for another source. Jemile Weeks and Ryan Flaherty both offer other assets, but they are both assets that don’t make the 2014 Orioles appreciably better. Weeks offers on base percentage and speed, but his defense is suspect and he offers no power. Flaherty is more of a defensive specialist who offers a bit of power, but he also has the on base percentage issues that Schoop has. With Machado looking less and less likely to be ready for Opening Day, it would make sense for Flaherty to man third base and give Schoop the job at second. When Machado comes back, Flaherty moves to a utility role and defensive replacement for Schoop late in games.
Schoop makes sense for the 2014 Orioles because he supplies exactly the type of production the Orioles’ offense is fueled on. Having one speedster in a lineup full of plodding sluggers isn’t all that optimal. But, adding Schoop to the bottom of the order as a home run threat not only lengthens the lineup, but helps add the home run power that many are afraid will disappear due to all of the expected regression.
If the Orioles are going to home run their way to a playoff berth, Jonathan Schoop should be part of the club from day one. His power fits in with the Orioles’ offensive attack and he offers a presence at the bottom of the order that fits the profile of an Orioles’ slugger. He also gives the lineup something it truly lacks, a hitter with a considerable amount of ceiling left. With the exception of Manny Machado, there is not one Orioles hitter who can realistically be counted on to post a better season than they already have. Schoop offers that upside.
It’s not as if the Orioles have a solid second baseman who offers both above average defense and can help in the lineup. Weeks could be a solid piece of the puzzle, but with a lineup of sluggers, he won’t be running all that much. Additionally, he has struggled at the Major League level since his rookie season. Flaherty can be useful in a utility role, but as a starter, he makes the lineup worse as he doesn’t offer above average power or on base skills. Jonathan Schoop offers a left handed presence at the bottom of the order who is capable of hitting a home run. If he can perform to his modest projections, he makes the Orioles the favorite to once again lead the league in home runs and be a top run scoring team. The Orioles need that type of offense if they are to be legitimate playoff contenders.