SARASOTA, Fla. -- It literally took a slap to the head to bring top Orioles prospect Jonathan Schoop back to baseball. The then-13-year-old was in the middle of soccer practice in his native Curacao, angry for being deemed too short to play shortstop and better suited at second, when baseball coach Frank Curiel stormed onto the field and gave the infielder a rude awakening.
"Listen, you have to play baseball," said Curiel, who coached a team that included Schoop and Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar to the Little League World Series the year before. "You have a real chance, a much better chance at a future."
Schoop, a mere 5-foot-4 at the time -- and from a family of shorter people -- had switched to soccer thinking it was just the opposite.
"Thank God for him, or where would I be now?," said Schoop, his 6-foot-2 frame daunting sitting in front of his locker. "I achieved one goal, to be here, but there's more to go."
If Schoop's stellar early-spring performance is any indication, his next goal -- to be the Orioles' starting second baseman -- could be closer than anticipated.
Coming off a 2013 season in which the 22-year-old played in the spring's World Baseball Classic for Team Netherlands, debuted in Triple-A, was sidelined for six weeks with a back injury, made his Major League debut as a September callup, and played in the Arizona Fall League, it would be easy to think Schoop took a nice long breather this winter. Not exactly.
Schoop and buddy Profar hit the gym six days a week, with the emphasis on adding strength like never before. After a month of watching the Orioles -- who were in contention for most of September -- play meaningful games, Schoop was taken back by just how much time and effort in the gym went into getting ready to play.
"I didn't believe if you were stronger you were going to be a better player until I came up here last year and saw all the guys go to work," said Schoop. "It gave me something to do this offseason, to work on my legs.
"I just want to be strong. I want to step in the box and feel strong. Even if you fail the at-bat, you feel good. And that's what my goal was: to get stronger everywhere and try to feel good."
Schoop -- who, like many players, will lose weight during the season -- weighed in at 228 when he arrived at camp, turning heads inside and outside the organization for losing a lot of his baby fat and growing into his body. He continued to awe in the camp's early days, homering in both of the team's intrasquad games and carrying that right into Grapefruit League play, where he's gone 9-for-17 (.529) with four extra-base hits and five RBIs.
Is he making it a tough decision for manager Buck Showalter, who is also considering Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks for the second-base job?
"Might be continuing to make an easy decision," said Showalter, who has reminded reporters all three players have Minor League options remaining. "There's a lot of ways to look at that. I told you before, we came in here with that completely wide open there. Still is."
Schoop has a tattoo on his left arm with five stars, reminding him of his goal to be a five-tool player. He looks at it often and, if he had to critique himself now, would fill up about three-and-a-half stars. Maybe four.
"I want to complete this," Schoop said, gesturing to the marking. "It's me, it's not based off what other people think."
Lauded as one of the Orioles' top position-player prospects for quite some time, it was just two springs ago that Schoop was hitching rides from Minor League camp over to Ed Smith Stadium with Manny Machado whenever Showalter needed some extra players to fill out the spring games. Now, Schoop drives his brother, Sharlon -- who he shares a house with -- to the Minor League complex before he comes in. Schoop works the Orioles' clubhouse better than most beat reporters, bouncing around from chair to chair, engaging guys in conversations and picking up as much information as possible.
"He spends every minute of the day trying to learn from everyone," shortstop J.J. Hardy said of Schoop. "He pays attention, he's very alert. And I think [him being] comfortable is the biggest [difference], in a good way. Because young kids can come up and feel comfortable, in a bad way. But in a good way, he's gotten a lot more comfortable."
Machado, who is close with Schoop after playing in the Minors together, is impressed by how much Schoop is able to pick the brains of the veteran players. It's something Machado did when he arrived, but he admits not to this extent, with Schoop talking to everyone from outfielders Adam Jones and Nick Markakis to catcher Matt Wieters.
"I think that helped with his confidence, being part of the team [last September] and feeling like he's part of what we are trying to do here," said Machado, who likened Schoop's ever-present grin last fall to being like a kid in a candy store. "This spring, he feels great. He looks great. He's done everything right in the offseason to prepare to try to make this team."
The Orioles, who promoted Machado straight from Double-A in August 2012, bumped Schoop up to Triple-A to further challenge him last spring. It's a credit to the organization's development, headed by Brian Graham, that they continued to test Schoop, who had a sluggish start and a back injury in 2013.
It was there that Schoop -- who called Triple-A manager Ron Johnson "Mr. Johnson" for weeks -- said he grew up a little bit, became more confident in his own skin and had fun just playing baseball. Johnson quickly learned Schoop was one of the few players he's ever been around in more than 20 years in pro ball who could walk back from a strikeout and have a light-hearted comment or laugh with him. Add that fun-loving personality in with his talent, and it's easy to see why Schoop is so well-liked.
"He likes to work hard, and he is becoming a great baseball player," Profar said. "He wants to be good. ... We pushed each other in the offseason. He's ready to play [in the Majors] and be good."
Schoop, who was told this spring that he's very much in competition for the second-base job, has told Johnson at least four times already that, while he likes Johnson, he doesn't want to play for him this season.
"I'm here to get better, "said Schoop. "I'm here to get better as a baseball player. And get better as a teammate, too. Get better at everything and help this team win as many games as I can.
"I think I've improved a lot of things, but I got to get faster. There will come a time, I will get that, too."
As for when his time in Baltimore may start, it's become a popular question at Orioles camp.
"He's definitely grown," Hardy said of Schoop's aptitude. "We know it's in there. He's going to make a decision at the end of spring tough, I think, if he keeps doing this."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.