Unlike the 2015 Chicago Cubs, who sent top prospect Kris Bryant to AAA for the beginning of the season even though he's apparently ready for the major leagues, the 2014 Orioles kept Jonathan Schoop in the major leagues all season even though most observers -- myself included -- thought that he would benefit from more AAA time. These contrasting decisions inspired me to reflect on a team's responsibilities to its fans and to its players.
At the minimum, when a patron buys a ticket to a game all the club owes him or her is five innings (4 1/2 if the home team is ahead) of baseball. And the minimum a club owes its players are the requirements of the Basic Agreement and each player's individual contract. But, at least at a moral level, I believe a team owes a fan their best effort and to try to win. And, I also believe that a team owes a player the chance to develop and to become the best player he can.
Most of the time, these responsibilities do not conflict. But on occasion, one responsibility conflicts with the other. Jonathan Schoop in 2014 most likely was such a conflict. Although it's impossible to say for certain, it's likely that Schoop was the 2014 Orioles' best second baseman and it's also likely that Schoop would have become a better player had he started the season at AAA Norfolk. Which raises a question -- at a basic level, did the 2014 Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop? Did they appropriately balance their responsibilities to their fans and their responsibilities to Schoop?
This will be a very high-level look at the question. I'm not going to micro-analyze Schoop's contributions to the Orioles nor try to predict exactly how Schoop would have developed at Norfolk. This is an intuitive and emotional question, and the purpose of this article is to identify and raise the questions rather than to necessarily give an incontrovertible answer (although I do provide my own answer).
In answering the high-level question of did the Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop, there are two arguments which to me carry very little weight. The first is that the Orioles didn't do right by Schoop because (1) they won the division by 12 games, therefore (2) even if Schoop was their best second baseman, it wasn't necessary to play him to win, therefore (3) they could have let Schoop develop at AAA. The problem with that argument is that the Orioles couldn't have known that they would win the division by 12 games and thus that playing their best second baseman wasn't going to be necessary. The second is that (1) a team owes it to their fans to play their best team, therefore (2) the Orioles had to play Schoop or break faith with their fans. The problem here is that a team owes it to their fans to play their best team not only now, but also in their future. If the difference between Schoop and Ryan Flaherty or Jemile Weeks was relatively insignificant, and if not playing Schoop with the Orioles in 2014 would have made him a better player in 2015 and beyond, then the Orioles weren't breaking faith with their fans by sending him down.
No one could seriously argue that Jonathan Schoop played well on offense -- colloquially, "hit well" -- in 2014. Of all players with 400 or more plate appearances, Schoop had the sixth-worst OPS+ (67). Either Schoop would have benefited from more minor-league time, or he's not a good hitter. When you take into account that Schoop hadn't really hit well in his last two minor-league seasons and that he missed half of the 2013 season with an injury, you could conclude that it would have been better for Schoop's career had he been optioned to Norfolk for the start of the 2014 season. By doing so, Schoop might have developed his skills more and become a better player.
It's also possible that Schoop will continue to develop in the major leagues, and that Schoop's future career will be no worse than it would have been had he started 2014 in AAA. Note that here I'm not discussing whether the Orioles would have benefited from slowing Schoop's service time. The goal of a team is to win; the Orioles won in 2014; so it's not necessary to discuss 2020. I'm focusing on whether or not starting Schoop in the major leagues in 2014 will damage his career. To do so, I tried to identify players who were promoted to the major leagues before they may have been ready and who didn't hit well.
I used the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index to identify the seasons similar to Schoop's since 1990. Specifically, I looked for seasons by second basemen, shortstops, or third basemen 23 or younger with an OPS+ of 75 or less, in 400-500 plate appearances. I found seven other such seasons -- Benji Gil in 1995, Cristian Guzman in 1999, "Florida" Alex Gonzalez in 2000, Jack Wilson in 2001, Cesar Izturis in 2002, Jose Castillo in 2004, and Omar Infante in 2005. Some of these players are, unlike Schoop, slap hitters with little power. Others weren't in their rookie season; they had had some significant major league experience before their bad season. That left three players -- Gil, Wilson, and Castillo.
Benji Gil played six more seasons in the majors, none as a regular. He did hit well in two seasons with the Angels at age 28 and 29, but otherwise hit very poorly. Jack Wilson had a 10-year career and made the all-star team at age 26. He too had two good seasons with the bat, but for the most part hit poorly (although less poorly than Gil). Castillo played four more seasons and didn't hit well in any of them. Neither Castillo nor Wilson were considered as good a prospect as Schoop; Gil was considered to be a better prospect than Schoop although he probably wouldn't be today.
While these careers don't prove that Schoop won't (or can't) develop further as a hitter they also don't indicate that he will or can. I think it's probable that the Orioles did damage Schoop's career by having him start 2014 in Baltimore and that they didn't treat him well. On the other hand, they did do the best thing for their short-term interest and their fans by having him start 2014 in Baltimore. Taking all that into account, I think they made the right decision.