That term may be a little strong - Jonathan Schoop is in no danger of being released after ths season, no matter how poorly it may go - but the Baltimore Orioles top remaining position prospect is entering the 2013 season at a crossroads in his career, with two very different paths in front of him.
Entering the 2012 season, Schoop was mentioned in the same breath as fellow prospect Manny Machado, perhaps not for having the same level of talent or high ceiling, but for being the pair that was the future of the Orioles. That future for the Orioles at the major league level arrived sooner than anyone had expected, and Machado rode a parallel wave of success right to the middle of the storm, finishing the season in the majors and in the playoffs. Schoop, on the other hand, took a step back in his development, finishing the season right where it started, in Double-A Bowie, and with disappointing numbers to show for his ability and potential.
Schoop is still the same talented player he was this time last year. A right-handed hitter with the potential for above-average power and the ability to play all three infield positions, Schoop is still oozing with the kind of potential that put him near the top of most Orioles prospect lists simply because that isn't a combination of talents often seen from a 21-year-old just coming off of a full season in Double-A.
But it was that season, last year's season, that brings to light questions about Schoop's game that were not nearly concerns of this magnitude this time last year.
Schoop has always been an aggressive hitter, but facing advanced pitching for the first time in his career, that aggressiveness was exposed more than ever before. Schoop actually posted the highest walk rate of his career last season, but still at just 9 percent, it's likely that he'll never walk enough to get on base a ton without hitting his way on. Additionally, the more patient approach led to a career-high strikeout rate of 18.6 percent, causing his batting average to drop to just .245.
The drop in average wasn't helped by a little bit of bad luck. Schoop posted a BABIP of .282 in 2012, down from the slight good luck he had in 2011 when he posted a BABIP of .318. Realistically, however, neither is far enough away from the norm to have had a drastic impact.
The good news is that Schoop posted a career high line drive rate last season of 17 percent. Batted ball data in the minors isn't extremely reliable, especially from level to level thanks to human error, but an increase of over 4 percent from one year to the next signifies that ther was at least some improvement in the number of balls Schoop hit hard.
The bad news is that, for the second straight season, Schoop showed a massive platoon split, which, as a right-handed hitter, can often be the difference between being a regular and a bench player in the majors.
After having a significant, but not overwhelming, split in 2011, when he hit .316/.381/.467 against lefties but .279/.335/.409 against righties (124 points difference in OPS), the difference got even more pronounced against better competition. In Double-A last season, Schoop hit .310/.401/.503 against lefties but just .216/.289/.330, a 285 point difference in OPS.
So what does all of this mean?
For starters, there's no reason to panic. Yet. That's what makes this a make or break year.
If Schoop turns in another season with a batting average hovering around .250 and an on-base percentage around .320, without some kind of dramatic spike in power, then it will be time to worry. But he'll be just 21 for the entire 2013 season, so there's still plenty of time to get things headed back in the right direction.
But there are still two very different potential directions for Schoop's career. The significant platoon splits have to improve in order for him to ever be a regular player in the big leagues. If he were left-handed, it wouldn't be as big of an issue, but with right-handed pitchers occupying big league mounds roughly two-thirds of the time, Schoop would be a below-average hitter in way too many of his at-bats to warrant regular playing time.
The good news for the Orioles is that, even if the platoon splits never improve, Schoop should still have value in the majors. He may not be able to hit right-handed pitching, but he crushes left-handed pitching. Additionally, a utility player with the ability to handle shortstop is very valuable when it comes to roster building, in that it means the Orioles won't have to keep a Cesar Izturis-type player simply as a backup shortstop. Schoop could also probably learn to handle a corner outfield spot without too much trouble, giving him additional value.
I'm not sentencing Schoop to bench-duty just yet. He's still young and talented, and has good power for a middle infielder. He'll likely never be a great hitter against right-handed pitching, but if he can improve and become average against them, he does enough other things (like hit for power, play numerous positions, etc.) to have a lot of value.
But this season should tell us which path Schoop will take. If he continues to struggle against Double-A right-handers the way he did in 2012, it's likely he'll never be able to make enough of an improvement to ever have hope of being a regular in the majors. Even as a platoon-utility man, Schoop will have a nice major league career, but as the best position prospect in a barren Orioles farm system, a lot of their future success is tied to his development this season.