SARASOTA, FLA. — For the players who don't already have their ticket punched for the 25-man major league roster, spring training is about to get real.
The Orioles open the Grapefruit League exhibition season Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays in nearby Port Charlotte, and the competition for a small handful of open major league jobs begins in earnest.
Of course, manager Buck Showalter would tell you that it's been real for a month now, since just about everything everybody has been doing down here since the four-day January mini-camp is observed and evaluated. But now comes the point in the spring where everything becomes easily quantified and compared.
It's not a wide-open camp anymore. The days when Showalter and Dan Duquette trumpeted the Ed Smith Stadium complex as a land of opportunity have given way to a fairly set roster that features competition for a couple of bullpen spots and a backup catcher role, some jockeying in left field and a small surplus of second base/utility infield candidates.
There's always the possibility of an injury creating an opening somewhere, so the extra candidates for what appear to be set positions still have to compete like there's a job in play, and some of them have more hanging in the balance than just a seat on the Norfolk-to-Baltimore shuttle.
Left-hander Zach Britton, for instance, could end up winning one of the bullpen jobs or he could end up on another major league roster, since he is out of minor league options. So, it's definitely on.
"We've added a lot of players and there are so many guys out of options — not just me — so there's a lot of interesting things that need to happen,'' Britton said, "but if I go pitch well, those things take care of themselves."
Britton said Thursday that he has considered the possibility that he might have to change uniforms, but he is looking forward to the opportunity to re-establish himself as a solid starter or reliever here.
"It has crossed my mind,'' Britton said. "Not recently ... moreso in the offseason when you have time to sit around and think about it. Right now, I'm here with this team, so my focus is hopefully to make the rotation with this team and help this team win. If not, if I'm in the bullpen, go out there and be the best reliever. Until that happens, I need to just go out there and pitch and have a good spring and see where the cards fall."
Josh Stinson is in a similar situation, without options, though he's competing more for the swing role in the bullpen. He got good reviews from Showalter for his relief work after shuttling back and forth several times last year and is eager to pick up where he left off in September.
"Absolutely, you want to go out there and show them what you have and execute all your pitches,'' he said. "You want to show them your best. You don't want to leave anything behind. You don't want to give a 50-percent effort when you're getting judged trying to make a 25-man roster."
This year in particular, with 31 pitchers still in major league camp, that competition figures to be intense, so Stinson and the other bubble guys know that trying to project where anyone will fit in a month from now is pointless.
"It's kind of impossible to do that, especially with how many guys we have right now,'' right-hander Steve Johnson said. "There are a few spots open, but you just have to go out and compete. Every game is a new opportunity to let them see what you can do."
Reserve catcher candidate Steve Clevenger got a head start on this year's competition against newcomer Johnny Monell when he came over in the July deal that sent Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitcher Scott Feldman, but he knows he can't take anything for granted. Even if he plays well enough to separate himself, there's always the possibility the club plucks a veteran off the waiver wire late in the spring.
"Whenever you're competing for job anywhere, whether it be in any camp, there's a sense of urgency,'' Clevenger said. "You want to get started. You want to show the team what you've got. ... That's just working hard and showing Buck what you bring to the table."
The left field/designated hitter situation is a little more complicated, as the recent signing of Nelson Cruz narrowed the possibilities and Nolan Reimold's health remains an unpredictable variable. Showalter also has to decide who will start at second base, and that decision likely will be impacted early on by the status of third baseman Manny Machado.
The only thing that is certain is that the coaching staff and front office have 31 games to sort all of it out.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.