The Baltimore Orioles aren’t known for easing their top prospects through the minor leagues. If they believe a promising young player can make an impact and help the club in some capacity, it’s a safe bet that they'll go out of their way to utilize him in the major leagues.
When the team had its sights set on a playoff berth last season, they turned to 20-year-old Manny Machado in early August, promoting him directly from Double-A Bowie to the major leagues. And when the organization felt it needed an additional bullpen arm in late September, it called upon 19-year-old Dylan Bundy, who at the time ranked as baseball’s top pitching prospect.
This year, the Orioles have continued to promote their top prospects ahead of schedule. When the need for a fifth starter arose in late May, they opted to go with right-hander Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2012 draft, despite his lack of professional experience.
When the active roster expanded from 25 to 40 players on September 1, the team decided to promote its top position prospect, second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
Even though he’s only 21, Schoop, like Machado, enjoyed a quick ascent of the Orioles’ system despite being one of the younger everyday players at each minor league stop. While he doesn’t project to be an overnight all-star like his buddy Machado, Schoop’s promising bat already has him pegged as the team’s next impact hitter.
Signed as a free agent out of Curacao on August 20, 2008, Schoop made a strong impression during his full-season debut in 2011. Playing in 128 games while splitting the year between Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick, he made a strong impression by batting .290/.349/.432 with 42 extra-base hits and a 76/42 K/BB ratio in 567 plate appearances.
In 2012, Schoop was assigned to Double-A Bowie for his age-20 season, where he served as one of the youngest everyday players in the Eastern League. However, the advanced competition didn’t prevent Schoop from emerging as the Orioles' future second baseman, as he batted .245/.324/.386 with 24 doubles and 14 home runs in 124 games. This spring, Schoop manned second base for the upstart Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and batted .214/.313/.464 with two home runs in eight games.
As a result of his continued success in challenging environments, Schoop was moved up to Triple-A Norfolk to begin the season. However, the 21-year-old got off to a sluggish start at the more advanced level and mustered only a .636 OPS in April. And just when it appeared as though he was finally putting things together during the following month, Schoop suffered a stress fracture in his back and was sidelined for roughly six weeks.
Upon his return from the disabled list in late July, Schoop struggled to get going at the plate and batted .245 with 30 strikeouts in 36 games. However, because he was already on the Orioles' 40-man roster, the organization decided to call up Schoop from Triple-A and offer him a taste of the major leagues over the final month of the season.
Despite his age and relative lack of experience in the minor leagues, Schoop, a 6’2”, 210-pound right-handed hitter, has already demonstrated a knack for attacking pitches with the barrel. While the hit tool is still raw overall, his strong wrists and compact swing generates above-average bat speed and plenty of loud contact.
In general, the ball jumps off Schoop’s bat thanks to a strong top hand through the zone and impressive extension after contact. Although he hasn’t shown as much thump this season as he did at Double-A Bowie in 2012, Schoop projects for slightly above-average power at maturity. While a majority of his present power is to the pull side, the 21-year-old is expected to develop more pop the other way with improvements to his approach and pitch recognition.
When he struggles, it usually stems from a tendency to bar his front arm and wrap the bat behind his head, which in turn makes him vulnerable to inner-half velocity. Furthermore, it also impedes his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field and results in too many weak ground-ball outs.
With the Orioles currently fighting for a spot in the postseason, it’s doubtful that Schoop will see significant playing time over the final month. However, if the team becomes mathematically eliminated in the playoff the race, Schoop is seemingly poised for an extended look at second base.
With 35-year-old Brian Roberts set to become a free agent following the 2013 season, Schoop is presumably the top internal candidate to replace him at the keystone next year. During his brief career in the minor leagues, he has shown the ability to make noticeable adjustments at the plate and improve in the face of significantly older competition. And while he’s far from a polished prospect, it’s only a matter of time until the Orioles challenge him at the highest level.