Cleveland — Jonathan Schoop can opt out of the final year of his contract with the Tigers next season and hit the free-agent market, betting on himself to do better than the $7.5 million he stands to make.
He knows that. He also knows putting up career-worst offensive numbers across the board isn’t an optimal platform to state his case for a pay hike ahead of his age-31 season.
But, as he talked in front of his locker Monday morning, it wasn’t about any of that. He sounded very much like a player committed to seeing things through here, like a player committed to being a part of the solution in 2023.
“I feel really good here, like I’ve said all along,” he said. “Thanks to the manager, AJ Hinch, I feel really good. I think this team is still going to move forward. We have a team that can win. Nobody expected us to be the way we are right now.
“We are still a team that expects to win. No excuses, but things didn’t go our way almost right from the start.”
Schoop mentioned the injuries, especially to the starting rotation. He talked about so many players with solid track records having down seasons. Mostly, though, he put a lot of it on himself.
“We are here to win ballgames and for us to win ballgames, I’ve got to get better,” he said. “And I will get better, for sure.”
Entering play Monday, Schoop’s slash line was .202/.237/.311 with an OPS of .548 — career lows in every category. He’s produced eight homers and 32 RBIs — down from 22 and 84 last season.
“I never got that stretch I normally get where I get real hot and carry the team for a month or so,” he said. “The average is down and the home runs are down. Normally if my average is down, the homers are up. It stinks.”
If there is one clear difference between Schoop this year and last, it’s been the ability to hit the fastball. Last season, he hit .324 and slugged .468 on fastballs. This year, like the rest of the team, it’s been a struggle — .216 average, .279 slug.
“But you learn from it,” Schoop said. “It gets you stronger and makes you better because you don’t take nothing for granted. This game is real tough. I learned a lot this year. You know, I’ve been a better player than this and I am going to be a better player for this. This is going to make me a better player. It’s got to.”
Schoop, offense aside, has vastly upgraded the Tigers’ defense moving back to second base. The Tigers, who posted a minus in the defensive runs saved category last year, are a plus-24 this season and Schoop’s plus-8 at second base is a big reason.
The Tigers double-play efficiency has greatly improved, and Schoop’s 24 outs above average is tops in baseball.
That’s why he continues to be in the lineup every day. And why he creates somewhat of a dilemma for the Tigers in 2023. Do they bank on the offense coming back or do they look for offensive upgrades in the infield? With Javier Báez’s sporadic defensive issues and inconsistencies at the plate, do they go shopping for another top-end shortstop this offseason (Trea Turner or Carlos Correa, for example)?
If they do that, do they move Báez to third? Move Schoop to third and Báez to second?
These are some of the decisions the new general manager will be grappling with.
Schoop has seven weeks to make those decisions a little clearer.
“You want to live in the moment,” he said. “You don’t want to think like that. You want to finish strong and improve on the things you need to improve upon. Things got to get better for next year.”
He meant that for himself and for the team.
“I hope everybody learned their lesson and I hope everybody knows what they’ve got to do for themselves to get better and for us to get better as a team,” Schoop said. “I know what I have to do and I am going to work at it.”
With four off-days on the schedule in the next two weeks, and two starting pitchers close to returning to the rotation, Hinch is going to have to make some decisions, especially since a fifth starter won’t be needed until September.
“We’re going to go with a four-man rotation,” he said. “We also have to take into consideration the guys who are working their way back — Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Pineda. We’re probably leaning toward using a nine-man bullpen with four starters and that will probably go all the way to September with the way the calendar is.”
Hinch said Matt Manning for sure and Tyler Alexander most likely will remain in the rotation. Vying for the other two spots will be Drew Hutchison, Garrett Hill and Daniel Norris — at least until Rodriguez and Pineda are ready to return.
Both Rodriguez and Pineda are expected to pitch Tuesday for Toledo. Rodriguez will start and Pineda, if all goes well, will finish.
“We’re hoping Eduardo can go five or six innings,” Hinch said. “Then he and I will hop on a call Wednesday and see what the next step is — another rehab start or rejoin us.”
Pineda will need at least another and possibly two more starts at Triple A to build back up.
“Whether it’s Austin Meadows, Eduardo or Michael Pineda, when you step on the field we want you to be ready to compete at this level,” Hinch said. “Eduardo is going to know himself the best.”
Around the horn
Speaking of Meadows, he is scheduled to play in back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday with the Mud Hens. Hinch said the first decision point regarding Meadows’ return would be Friday. If they determine he needs to extend the rehab assignment through the weekend, the second decision point would be before the game Tuesday against the Giants at Comerica Park.
Tigers at Guardians
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Tuesday, Progressive Field, Cleveland
► TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► RHP Garrett Hill (2-3, 4.66), Tigers: He pitched well against the Guardians last Thursday, victimized a bit by some defensive mistakes. He didn’t miss many bats (one strikeout, three swings and misses) but he mixed his breaking pitches (slider, knuckle curve) well against a mostly right-handed lineup. He mixed them so well he got a lot of takes with his fastball (14 called strikes).
► RHP Zach Plesac (2-10, 4.32), Guardians: This will be the fourth time the Tigers have faced him since July 4. They beat him twice, but he shut them down last Thursday at Comerica, allowing only a Javier Báez homer in 6.1 innings. He threw the Tigers a little wrinkle, using 14 sliders and getting six swings and misses.