The Orioles haven’t officially ruled out third baseman Manny Machado for Opening Day, but his chances of being ready by March 31 remind you of the Black Knight fighting King Arthur in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” at this point.
The season opener has never been the priority for the 21-year-old in the organization’s eyes as a 100-percent Machado for what will still be a significant portion of the season is preferable to a lesser version being thrown into action before he and his surgically-repaired left knee are ready. Because of the overwhelming success Machado has had in his brief major league career, we easily forget he’s far from a finished product — a .240 average in the second half of 2013 reflects that — so compromising his long-term health and development for a handful of games wouldn’t be a wise gamble.
With Ryan Flaherty expected to move to third base in Machado’s absence, Orioles manager Buck Showalter is faced with the decision of what to do at second, but the combination of spring performancs and long-term potential make for an easy choice among Jonathan Schoop, Jemile Weeks, Alexi Casilla, and Alex Gonzalez.
Weeks, acquired in the Jim Johnson trade this winter, has hit .138 in 29 spring at-bats and has minor-league options remaining.
The non-roster invitee Casilla has been hampered with injuries and didn’t do much to leave a lasting impression as a reserve on last year’s club.
Gonzalez, 37, has hit .440 this spring but has never played second base in the big leagues and hit .177 with Milwaukee in his 15th season a year ago, making him a better fit as a utility infielder than as an everyday player for a couple weeks.
Schoop (pronounced “scope”) has only done everything that’s been asked of him to earn his shot as the Orioles’ starting second baseman against the Boston Red Sox in just over a week. A .406 spring average might be fool’s gold in trying to decide whether the Curacao native is truly ready to be an everyday player in the major leagues, but Machado’s short-term absence provides a convenient window for the Orioles to evaluate what they hope will be an important part of their future.
The 22-year-old added strength in the offseason and has looked solid defensively at second base, a position at which Schoop may not remain because his 6-foot-2, 210-pound listed frame is still evolving. The Orioles would have needed to option him to Triple-A Norfolk anyway had Machado been further along in his recovery, so there appears to be no drawback to rewarding the organization’s top positional prospect with a short-term audition.
If Schoop can perform at such a high level to force the Orioles’ to revisit Flaherty’s status as the projected starting second baseman upon Machado’s return, it’s a great problem to have for an organization that’s struggled to receive consistent production at second base over the last few seasons.
In truth, there is far more evidence to support Schoop needing more seasoning at Triple A than there is proof of him being ready to thrive in Baltimore. In addition to a stress fracture in his back that cost him two months of the 2013 season, Schoop hit only .256 with a .697 on-base plus slugging percentage in 289 plate appearances for the Tides last season. And his .710 OPS as a 20-year-old at Double-A Bowie in 2012 was respectable for such a young prospect but certainly not an indicator of being on the verge of stardom.
Then again, Machado’s .266 average at Bowie two years ago made his early-August call-up to Baltimore a surprise to nearly everyone at the time. It’s safe to say that decision worked out swimmingly.
Much like there was a need for a better defensive player at third base when they called on a 20-year-old Machado, the Orioles have an opening at second base and no other option appears better than Schoop, who homered in his first major league game last September and has five extra-base hits in 32 Grapefruit League at-bats this spring.
If he’s not ready for the big stage, you send him back to Norfolk where he can play every day when Machado returns and Flaherty shifts back to second base. But rewarding Schoop for his spring performance and potential feels like the right move for the Orioles, who haven’t shied away from promoting their top prospects in recent years.
It may not result in another overnight success story like Machado — nor should Schoop be compared to such an unusual talent as he often is– but writing his name in the lineup on March 31 makes too much sense at this point.