It goes without saying that when Jonathan Schoop landed on the disabled list with an oblique strain on Sunday, it meant bad news for the Orioles. It is difficult to lose the reigning Most Valuable Oriole who posted a .293/.338/.503 slash line last season. Schoop established himself as a legitimate middle of the order threat and was poised to get even better in 2018.
But fans of every Major League Baseball team will have the opportunity to complain about injuries, an inevitable part of the 162-game grind, at some point this season. Successful teams find a way to deal with those injuries by relying on talent and depth throughout the organization. The best Baltimore’s minor league system can produce is Luis Sardinas and Engelb Vielma.
This is not meant to criticize Sardinas and Vielma. Both have proven to be plus defenders in their young careers and serviceable utility players. As we saw with Ryan Flaherty, there is a place (and perhaps a necessity) for those players on winning teams. Both are young and could have nice major league careers.
This is also not meant to be overly critical of the Orioles’ ability to draft and develop players, which has been a popular target of scorn. The roster is lined with players who were drafted and/or developed by the Orioles: Manny Machado, Schoop, Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Zach Britton, to name a few. There are also some talented players on the cusp on the big leagues. Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, Austin Hays, and Cedric Mullins come to mind.
What this is meant to criticize is the Orioles’ handling of the depth and future of the middle infield positions. On Opening Day, arguably the league’s best double play duo was in Baltimore. Schoop and Manny Machado are in the primes of their career, dynamic offensive threats, and solid defenders. But what has the club done to provide insurance in the event of an injury to either one? What is the plan should one or both of these players not be wearing black and orange within the next couple of seasons?
Below is the number of middle infielders the Orioles have drafted and signed in the first twenty rounds of that year’s draft:
2015: 3 (Including Ryan Mountcastle, who never projected as a major league shortstop and has since switched positions)
The MLB draft is an inexact science that becomes more inexact as the rounds get lower. It’s difficult to draft and develop a pick into a major league player, but certainly easier to address long-term success at a position if more top-20 picks are invested in said positions.
Has anything been done through international free agency to address these two positions? Much has been made of the Orioles’ unwillingness to dive into this market. The signing of Schoop a decade ago was the last major move on that front to address the middle infield.
This neglect through the draft and international market has led to a dry minor league pipeline. MLB.com’s 2018 Prospect Watch lists two middle infielders among the O’s top 30 prospect: shortstops Adam Hall and Mason McCoy at numbers 20 and 28 respectively. Both were drafted last summer and cannot be reasonably expected to contribute to the major league club anytime soon.
A look at Norfolk and Bowie’s roster turns up names such as Ruben Tejada, Garabez Rosa, Sharlon Schoop, Adrian Marin, Corban Joseph, and Erick Salcedo. There is some hypothetical talent possible out of this group, but none are seen by the industry as prospects, nor should they be.
While it is frustrating to watch Schoop go down and be replaced by two light-hitting utility infielder types, it is only April. Schoop will return before too long and either Sardinas or Vielma will return to a bench role for which he is best suited. The other will return to Norfolk.
O’s fans can be legitimately worried when wondering what two players are standing in the middle of the Camden Yards infield on Opening Day 2020. We would all love to see Schoop and Machado sign long-term extensions, finish their careers in Baltimore, and be inducted into the O’s Hall of Fame in a joint pre-game ceremony. But that probably won’t happen.
Hopefully, Schoop’s injury will serve as a wake-up call to the organization and they can implement a plan for the middle infield in the near future.