Several years ago, there was a prospect coming through the Orioles' system that intrigued me. I didn't know much about him; he was that rare international signing making noise in an organization that normally is bereft of talent outside of the United States.
So, I asked several scouts I knew for their opinions on the infielder in his early 20s named Jonathan Schoop -- or "Scoop," as I thought it was pronounced at the time.
The reviews were mixed. I was told he was not a fluid fielder. That he would be too big for the middle infield. That his feet weren't particularly nimble. All of them mentioned the arm, of course. Kid has a hose for an arm. He'll grow out of shortstop and end up at third base.
As for Schoop's offense, there was an even more streamlined opinion. The ball jumped off his bat. He had above-average bat speed and power for a middle infielder, I was told, and that would play at the big league level. But multiple evaluators cautioned that Schoop had an aggressive hitting approach and a swing that could get too long at times.
I clearly remember one scout saying, "This guy one day will hit 30 home runs in the majors, but he's probably not going to bat over .250."
Well, the guy got it half right. This year, in Schoop's breakout, All-Star season with the Orioles, the 25-year-old second baseman reached the 30-homer mark for the first time in his career at any level. He's hit more homers and driven in more runs this season than any second baseman in one year in Orioles history.
So maybe I got some bad scouting information. But I don't think so.
In 2012, Schoop spent the full season at Double-A Bowie and hit .245 with 24 doubles, 14 homers and 103 strikeouts. After that season, Baseball America ranked him as the third-best prospect in the Orioles' system -- he was behind right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. The magazine opined that Schoop's power potential was noteworthy, but he needed work as an all-around hitter.
"[Schoop is] an aggressive hitter who produces loud contact, but he has a bat wrap that causes timing issues and leaves him vulnerable to premium fastballs on the inner half," the magazine stated. "He needs to improve his pitch recognition to make the most of his above-average raw power. His plus arm will play anywhere. Depending on how his body fills out, he might be best suited for third base or an outfield corner, though he hasn't left the infield yet."
So what happened? How did Schoop go from that to one of the best all-around second basemen in the majors?
Schoop will tell you the answer is simple. So will the people around him: Work ethic.
No one worked harder, whether it was leading Curacao's Little League World Series Championship team in 2004 or the Orioles now.
"Going back, he had a lot of ability. Skills were good," said Bobby Dickerson, the Orioles' third base and infield coach who has worked with Schoop since the infielder was a teenager in the Orioles' system. "He had great hands, arm strength, bat speed, all those things. But you have to develop the skills into actual tools, actual ability to apply them on the field. And he never was too good of a prospect not to listen and work at it. And even when things are going good, like they are now, he is still coachable."
That is the separator, Dickerson said. He's had plenty of pupils with the talent to succeed in the majors. But Schoop never took his ability for granted. He was always in the shadow of someone, whether it was Jurickson Profar (now with the Texas Rangers) as a youngster in Curacao or current Orioles third baseman Manny Machado during their tandem ascent through the organization,
Even now, whenever Schoop is asked about his buddy Machado's talent, he says simply: "Manny is the man."
Currently, though, Schoop is the Orioles' catalyst. He should easily be named Most Valuable Oriole and should get serious consideration for at least the top five in the American League Most Valuable Player race. Schoop's thoughts on that?
"I don't think about those types of things. I just want to contribute to my team, do whatever I can do for us to win, whatever I can do to put us in the playoffs, that's all that matters," Schoop said. "It doesn't matter if you're MVP but you're at home and watching the games. Playoffs are fun. I want to do my best. I want to be better than I was last year. I want to contribute to my team, and whatever happens, we're going to see."
What we've seen in the last few years is a player who has gone from an infielder with defensive questions and offensive limitations to one of baseball's more promising All-Stars.
"This guy doesn't miss much," Dickerson said. "He absorbs. He sees the game within the game like a manager does. He really does. His instincts are good. And those things, I can remember back from the beginning, those are work ethic things. They really are. It's not just sprinting and sweating. It's exercising the brain."
It's also working at the little things when he's already seemingly at the top of his game.
Case in point: Before each inning, Schoop will snag a throw from the catcher, put a tag down on an invisible runner at second base and throw the ball to a fellow infielder. Then he looks into the dugout to catch Dickerson's eye.
"He is looking for approval to see if the tag was OK. Nobody sees that quick little thing," Dickerson said. "He's still doing that as an All-Star. He is still doing little stuff like that."