SAN DIEGO — Last winter’s MLB lockout prevented teams from being in touch with their players. That had a long list of detrimental effects. Among them: It prevented funny situations like the one that follows. About every other day this offseason, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has been receiving videos from infielder Jonathan Schoop.
In the videos, Hinch said, Schoop is doing agility drills. It’s Schoop’s way of answering questions about his range. Despite leading MLB with 27 Outs Above Average in 2022, there are at least mild concerns next season’s limitation on the shift could harm Schoop’s sterling defense at second base.
“He’s making a statement,” Hinch said.
Schoop was a Gold Glove finalist this past season. He did not win the award despite deserving metrics — that went to Cleveland’s Andrés Giménez — but Schoop dazzled in the field all season long. He’s been a nimble athlete his entire career, a guy who pitched in the Little League World Series and came up playing shortstop. But Schoop is also listed at 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, a sturdier build than the prototypical middle infielder.
Next season, MLB teams must have two fielders stationed on either side of second base. At least four players must keep their feet on the infield dirt. There are concerns the shift limitations put rangy infielders back at a premium, particularly at second base. Last season the Tigers shifted on 37 percent of plate appearances, the 10th-most in the league.
And so here is a question central to this Tigers offseason: Will Schoop again be the everyday second baseman last season?
Despite a difficult year at the plate, the Tigers’ evaluations of Schoop’s defense could hold the answer to that question. Under the previous rules, Schoop was known for playing deep on the outfield grass, allowing him more time to react to groundballs. Schoop has a rocket arm for a second baseman, one he was able to use to offset that distance from first base.
“I think second basemen around the league got used to playing from a huge distance in the back,” Hinch said, “and especially Schoop, having his arm make up for any distance he wanted to play in the back, is really going to be different.”
The metrics indicate a mixed picture of Schoop’s actual range. Per FanGraphs, Schoop was worth minus-0.8 Range Runs Above Average, indicating exactly what it sounds like: Schoop’s range was slightly below average. He did, however, have an ultimate zone rating of 2.7. In another metric called Speed Factor, Schoop checked in at 4.4, which placed him 10th among MLB second basemen last season.
Combining these numbers suggests Schoops’ range is far from elite but not a liability, either.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Hinch said. “Jonathan relies so heavily on his arm to make some of those outs above-average that he made last year. There were a lot of throw plays. Not as many range plays. … The turn’s going to be the same. The mobility around second base is going to be something that we hammer home with him.”
Tuesday at MLB’s Winter Meetings, Hinch left the door open to Schoop playing other positions. Hinch valuing versatility is nothing new, but it’s worth remembering the Tigers squandered Schoop’s defensive talents in 2021, constructing the roster in a way that caused Schoop to play 905 innings at first base, where he was worth minus-4 Defensive Runs Saved.
“I think he can play a couple different positions,” Hinch said. “I think first base will still be an option for him. I think third base is going to be an option for him. Depends on how the roster is built and what other guys we have available to us.”
The idea of Schoop playing third or serving in more of a utility role seems more plausible than posting Schoop back at first. After non-tendering Jeimer Candelario, it’s unclear how the Tigers will fill the void at third base. Where Schoop plays, it seems, is indeed linked to which other infielders the Tigers are able to acquire.
And while Schoop could serve as a fascinating case study for how rule changes will impact the game, another point remains: No matter where Schoop plays in the field, the Tigers badly need his bat to improve next season.
“I think he’s a leader on this team,” Tigers executive Scott Harris said in November. “Obviously everyone has seen how talented of a defender he is. It’s all about getting him right at the plate.”
There’s also reason to believe an offensive rebound of some degree is likely. Schoop hit only .202 last year, and his wRC+ of 57 was the worst of any qualifying player in the league. Schoop, though, has a lifetime wRC+ of 95, with five different seasons in which he’s been above the league average of 100. He hit only 11 home runs last season but has surpassed 20 homers in five other seasons.
On the final day of the regular season, Schoop stood at his locker in Seattle and issued a promise: “Next year,” he said, “I’m going to give you guys a lot to write about. A lot of good things.”
More from Winter Meetings
• The Tigers will have the No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. Entering MLB’s inaugural draft lottery Tuesday, the Tigers’ had the sixth-best odds of landing the top pick. “Our whole room was really excited to go from six to three,” Harris said. “Every opportunity to go acquire an impact, young player is sacred. Now we are even closer to the top of the draft. We’re going to get to a place in this organization where we are not picking in the top of the draft. That is the goal.”
• Things remain quiet for the Tigers at Winter Meetings, where they have yet to make a deal and have not been the subject of many rumors floating around. Harris, though, said there is plenty of work going on behind the scenes. “We’re really busy right now,” Harris said. “We don’t have a trade to announce to show how busy we are, but rest assured, we don’t find the trade market or free agency to be sluggish right now, even if on Twitter it doesn’t look like something’s happening.”
• Early contracts for free-agent relievers seem like an indication other teams could have increased interest in Tigers relievers such as Gregory Soto, Joe Jiménez or Alex Lange. The Mets re-signed Edwin Díaz to a five-year deal worth $18.6 million annually, the Padres gave Robert Suárez five years and $46 million, and the Astros gave Rafael Montero three years and $34.5 million. Trading with the Tigers could be a far more affordable way for teams to acquire capable bullpen arms. “I can’t really comment on that because I’m not asking the other GMs that are calling me if a certain player is more attractive against the backdrop of free agency,” Harris said. “I think it’s fair to speculate that, but it’s hard to really prove.”
• Harris has continued to keep most details of the Tigers’ plans close to the vest. Last season, the Tigers had an Opening Day 28-man payroll of about $135 million. They currently have about $122 million of financial commitments to the 40-man roster this winter. Harris did not say whether the 2023 payroll will be similar to last season’s. “We have a firm idea of what our payroll is going to be, but strategically it doesn’t make sense for me to disclose that,” he said.
(Top photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)