SARASOTA, Fla. — When infielder Jonathan Schoop won the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year award in September 2011, he traveled to Camden Yards to accept the honor.
The shy, skinny Curacao native, then 19 years old, couldn't have looked more uncomfortable on the field that day, tentatively shaking hands with staff and players while giving barely audible answers to reporters in a language that he was still learning.
There was a common sentiment within the media: This is the kid who beat out top prospect Manny Machado for an award that bears the name of Hall of Famer? This is a future infield mainstay?
"I was nervous at that time. It was my first time. [I thought], 'Do I really have to do this?' " Schoop said Monday, while laughing. "But I worked on [being comfortable]. The more you talk to people, the more you learn. I learned English in school, but it was tough for me to communicate. I wanted to talk with [the media] and with my teammates, and I want to get better at it. And I still have more to learn."
One of the most striking things about Orioles spring training camp this year is the maturation — and, perhaps, metamorphosis — of Schoop, who is now 22, speaks fluent English and hopes to make this year's club as the starting second baseman.
Schoop's inclusion in the second base competition initially seemed to be a simple courtesy to the organization's top position player; it seemed inevitable that he'd begin the regular season at Triple-A Norfolk, where he played just 70 games last year because of a stress fracture in his lower back that cost him more than two months of the season.
Because of his inexperience, Schoop (pronounced Scope) seemed to be several spots down on the depth chart in a competition that also includes Ryan Flaherty, Jemile Weeks, Alexi Casilla and Alex Gonzalez.
"Those guys are good, too — Flaherty and Weeks and Casilla. So I come in and try to get better, do better and stay in the big leagues," Schoop said. "If they want me to compete for the job, I'm there. If they want me to do other things, I'm there, too."
But manager Buck Showalter maintains that Schoop has a chance to break camp with the major league club, given how well he has played so far.
"Nothing has changed. He came in here with an opportunity to make our club, and he has not taken a step back at all," Showalter said. "I'm glad we've got some more time for things to separate themselves a little. Because he has [minor league] options or whatever, that doesn't have anything to do with it. He is in a very competitive situation right now."
'I got stronger everywhere'
Schoop has taken the challenge seriously. He returned to his Caribbean island this winter and worked out six days a week, lifting, running and then concentrating on stretching and strengthening his legs and core muscles. It's something doctors told him he must do to prevent a stress fracture from occurring again.
The result is that his flexibility has increased dramatically, and he added 12 to 15 pounds of muscle — something he said is a combination of strength training and normal physical maturation. The once rail-thin kid is now 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds.
"I am maturing, I am growing. I was 18 back then [when he first played in the United States], and now I am 22. It was that, but I also worked hard," Schoop said. "I got stronger, in my legs, in my upper body, too. I got stronger everywhere."
He is driving the ball this spring. He is driving the ball this spring. In 13 exhibition games through Saturday, Schoop is hitting .423 (11-for-26) with four doubles, a home run and six RBIs. He had a four-game hitting streak before going hitless in three at-bats between two appearances Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox and Thursday against the New York Yankees. He has also played well at second base, turning the double play adeptly.
"I think I am way better than last year. That's the goal every year: to get better. Every year you have to become a better baseball player. I am not only better in the field, but I have a better mentality, too," Schoop said. "That's a big part; you have to be strong mentally. Every day, I try to do more things and never stop. Every day you can learn something."
A glimpse of the potential
Schoop endured several learning experiences last year.
In the spring, Schoop played in the World Baseball Classic for Team Netherlands (Curacao is part of the Dutch Caribbean). He hit .214 with two home runs and, more important, played several games with and against major leaguers.
"Being in that atmosphere, he looked around, and there are major leaguers everywhere. And he performed at a nice level," said Bobby Dickerson, the Orioles' third base and infield coach. "And I think that says to him, 'Wait a minute. I can play with these guys.' "
In May, Schoop dealt with the scary back injury that threatened to wipe out his season.
"It was difficult. I've never stayed down for a long time like that," Schoop said. "The first week was really tough for me because I wanted to play baseball and I can't."
Schoop made it back by July, and in September he was called up to the big leagues. He had two hits, including a home run against the Toronto Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek, in his debut Sept. 25. The only other Orioles player to homer in his major league debut was catcher Larry Haney in 1966.
"My first game I wanted to be a good game, but I never dreamed I was going to hit a homer," Schoop said. "I lost words. A lot of emotions. It's tough to do. Not many people can do that in their first game."
Connection with Machado
That game just fueled the ever-growing hype surrounding Schoop, who, perhaps unfairly, often has been connected with Machado, the club's 21-year-old All-Star third baseman and Schoop's close friend.
There has been some concern within the organization that outsiders expect the same kind of immediate impact from Schoop that Machado provided in August 2012 and most of last season.
"They both came up together, they were playing in Delmarva together … and Manny got an opportunity a little sooner than Jonathan did. But I don't like to think of him as a Manny Machado," Dickerson said. "Jonathan Schoop is Jonathan Schoop. He is not Manny Machado. And that's not in a negative way. He is his own man, and he is going to write his own history."
Machado said he's not surprised that his buddy has seized the opportunity and pushed his way into being a legitimate candidate for the second base job.
"He has always had the talent," Machado said. "He doesn't want to go back to the minor leagues. He has had a little taste of how it is up here, and obviously, he knows if he does the right things and plays the game the right way, he has a chance to make this club."
Coincidentally, Machado's health could create a roster spot for Schoop.
If Machado, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery, begins the season on the 15-day disabled list, Flaherty is the most likely candidate to start at third base. If Flaherty temporarily shifts to third, the possibility of Schoop and Weeks both making the Opening Day roster increases.
For his part, Schoop is saying all the right things. Although he has been primarily a second baseman for the past two seasons, he's willing to play all over the infield, like he has done in the minors. And, if the Orioles send him back to Triple-A Norfolk this month, Schoop says he's OK with that, too.
"It's not disappointing. I'll get to play baseball. I want to play baseball. And if they send me [to Norfolk], I'll be playing baseball," Schoop said. "And if I go there, I'll work hard and I'll do whatever I need to do for them to call me up again."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun