SARASOTA, FLA. — Steve Clevenger made the Chicago Cubs' Opening Day roster in each of the past two seasons as the team's backup catcher, but making the Orioles' roster this season and running down the orange carpet on Opening Day would hold special significance for him.
Clevenger, a Mount St. Joseph graduate, grew up an Orioles fan, living just a stone's throw from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in Pigtown. The trade that brought him to his hometown organization last summer gave him an opportunity few players have.
This spring, he will compete with offseason trade acquisition Jonny Monell for the Orioles' backup catcher spot behind All-Star and Gold Glove starter Matt Wieters.
"Whenever you have the opportunity to make the Opening Day roster, it's always special, especially being from here and being a hometown kid," said Clevenger, who now lives in Linthicum. "It's a goal to break with the 25-man roster but like I said, I'm going to do what I can control here and work hard, and at the end of the day that decision falls in [manager] Buck [Showalter] and [executive vice president Dan Duquette's] hands.
This is the first spring training in Orioles camp for both Clevenger and Monell, who was acquired from the San Francisco Giants in November for cash. Monell had yet to arrive in camp as of Saturday night because of weather-related travel delays.
This is Clevenger's sixth big-league camp, so he is well-versed in the competition of spring training.
"Every camp you go into is a little bit different," Clevenger said. "Right now being a new guy, I'm just falling under [Wieters'] wing a little bit, and kind of follow him around a little bit and see how he does things over here. … It's great to have a guy like that. He has the credentials. He's perennial catcher in the American League. It's good to have that as a role model, and have that leadership in the clubhouse."
The 27-year-old Clevenger is the remaining piece of the Orioles' July 2 trade with the Cubs that also brought right-handed starting pitcher Scott Feldman in exchange for right-handers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. In the offseason, Feldman — whom the Orioles were interested in re-signing — signed a three-year, $30-million deal with the Houston Astros.
"We gave up some good potential players for he and Scotty," Showalter said. "But also, I'm not naïve. I've found out throughout the years to give teams credit for knowing players they've had for four or five years. … But sometimes, you have to give up a good player to get somebody who matches up with you better, whether it be Arrieta or Strop. We were in need of a starter with Scotty. So far, so good with [Clevenger]."
When the Orioles acquired Clevenger, he was still recovering from an oblique injury that sidelined him two weeks into the 2013 season. But when he returned and debuted at Triple-A Norfolk in early August, he made an impression with hit bat, compiling a solid .324/.402/.437 slash line in 20 games.
That helped earn a call-up when rosters expanded in September. Clevenger made four starts, driving in two runs in his Orioles debut, a 5-3 win in Toronto on Sept. 13, and hit safely in his other three games as a starter, going 4-for-15.
"It was a good experience," Clevenger said of his late-season call-up. "I got to catch a lot of the guys and pick their brains for a little bit, whether it was for a month or a couple weeks. It is always huge to come into spring training knowing the guys that you have who are going to be on the team, or possibly go to Triple-A, but it's always good knowing and being able to get a jump start to everything after being here last year."
Showalter made it clear on Saturday that Clevenger will win a roster spot not with his bat, but his ability to catch. Wieters made a career-high 134 starts at catcher last season, and Showalter said he'd like to give Wieters more rest in 2014.
"I know that [bench and catchers coach] John [Russell], one of his points of emphasis with all [the catchers] was 'You're going to win this job with your defense. What you hit is just [a bonus],'" Showalter said. "We can't have a lot of drop-off on a day that Matt doesn't catch, and we'd like to have a few more of those days."
Despite Clevenger's late-season call up, Showalter said he needs to see more .
"I remember the first time we caught him I was pretty impressed and I kind of thought, 'What are we missing? A left-handed bat. He's got a history of hitting.'" Showalter said. "Then he had a couple of games when you kind of went, 'Hmm, OK.'"
In the past, Clevenger has won roster spots with his ability to play multiple positions. With the Cubs, he played first base, third base and even a little second base to show his versatility.
But here with the Orioles, he knows he will be evaluated as a catcher.
"I'm just going to try to be myself, not try to do too much," Clevenger said. "Going to camp and being with Chicago the past few years and knowing your role on the team, you just try to go about your business and do the things that you're able to control. … You know you're going to go into a competition unless you're one of the top dogs. Competition is welcome, but I'm going to do what I can do to control what I can do."