SARASOTA, Fla. — On the tiny Caribbean island of Curacao, located just off the northern Venezuelan coast, baseball is the unofficial national sport.
Kids growing up there have dreams of playing in the Little League World Series, following in the footsteps of a group that brought the world championship back to the island in 2004.
Orioles infield prospect Jonathan Schoop played on that team. One of his teammates was Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar, now heralded at the top prospect in baseball. Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons — another highly touted middle infielder — wasn't on that team, but he was often a teammate of the two growing up.
"Everybody down there plays," Schoop (pronounced Scope) said with a smile. "It's a small island. If you play baseball, you're pretty sure you know those guys. We all know each other. We still all practice together in the offseason, too."
So when Schoop had the chance to play with some of his childhood friends again this spring in the World Baseball Classic representing the Netherlands — Curacao is a sovereign state that was under Dutch rule and is now a independent member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands — it was an opportunity too tempting to pass up.
"We all played together since we were kids, and we separated this way and that way, so it's great to be able to come back together and play with each other because we all go back really far and we're able to represent our country," said Schoop, 21. "You're playing with your friends and being able to play with all your friends, its fun. We've been separated a long time, so when you get to play together every three, four years, it's fun."
This is Schoop's first big league camp — he was added to the Orioles' 40-man roster this offseason — so the decision to play in the WBC was a difficult one. He leaves the team this weekend to join the Dutch squad, which will play its opening round pool-play games in Taiwan.
"It was tough. I sat down and talked with the guys I needed to talk with, and they all supported me all the way whether I was staying or going," Schoop said. "I think I'm going because it's good for me, too. It's good competition."
Before that, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has promised to get Schoop as many at bats as possible — he's played on both days of intrasquad games — to prepare him for the WBC. The Netherlands team is coached by former major leaguer Hensley Meulens, who played for Showalter with the New York Yankees.
"Talking to Hensley ... [we're] making sure [Schoop is] ready, which gives him a better chance to be healthy," Showalter said. "We kind of backed off of him after the fall league, tried to let him catch up. He had been playing a lot of baseball. It's not to say when he comes back he couldn't come back here and get a look, but we'll see where we are when that happens."
Schoop, the Orioles' minor league player of the year in 2011, is the consensus third-ranked prospect in the Orioles organization behind pitchers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.
Playing mostly at second base, he recorded a .245/.324/.386 line last season at Double-A Bowie, hitting a career-high 14 homers in 124 games while dealing with a nagging left knee injury. Still, Schoop dropped out of Baseball America's top-100 prospects this year after being ranked No. 82 last season.
Schoop spent the offseason playing in the Arizona Fall League. He posted a .270/.446/.429 line in 21 games for the Mesa Solar Sox, playing mostly at third base to give his knee a rest.
Schoop said he will play second base in the WBC because Profar has decided he won't play. He will be reunited with Simmons, who will be the Netherlands' starting shortstop.
What position Schoop projects to play as a major leaguer is still uncertain. He first came up as a 17-year-old shortstop, but has played mostly second base the past two seasons. He's played an increasing amount at third, and could play there if Manny Machado eventually transitions to shortstop. Schoop says he's fine with that, but he always saw himself as a middle infielder growing up. In Curacao, those were the glamour positions.
"I don't know," Schoop said. "I'm a guy who just wants to be in the lineup, but I like to turn double plays. If I need to play third base to help a team, I will, but my best position is middle infield — second base or shortstop. But I will play third. Right now, I really don't care as long as I'm in the lineup."
The Orioles believe they have time to make up their mind.
"It's somewhat debated," Showalter said. "I think he's got a chance to play a number of places. I know where he profiles, but I wouldn't go into painting him into a corner in one place. How do you profile a guy at 21 years old? I think you make a mistake if you try to say that because the look he presents is kind of third, but let's face it, it's all going to depend on what his bat does. If he ends up being a big bat, he's going to end up being able to play a lot of places."