PEORIA, Ariz. — There is a point, generally, when every long shot in a big-league camp realizes his dream will likely remain on hold or just might — might — come true.
Lefty David Rollins, a Rule 5 pick from Houston, has worked 5 1/3 scoreless innings this spring for the Mariners in five appearances. He has six strikeouts and hasn’t walked a batter.
And since one the Mariners’ few position battles is to find a second lefty reliever for their bullpen, that prompted an obvious first question Tuesday for Rollins: Is he at that seminal point that for a long shot?
(Nearly all Rule 5 picks are, by definition, long shots.)
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“It’s just all about the competition,” Rollins responded in a slow Texas drawl. “There are other guys out here who I’m competing against. I’m just trying to do the best I can.”
You know, Rollins was asked as a follow-up, that ultra-cliched response could have come straight out of “Bull Durham?”
Rollins: “I actually watched that (Monday) on the day off.”
Rollins, 25, contends the Mariners have yet to see him at his best. He contends he’s “lost my slider a little bit.” That’s forced him to rely more on his fastball and change-up.
And this is a new role for Rollins, who has always been a starter or a piggyback reliever in his four minor-league seasons. (A piggyback reliever is, in effect, a second starter in the manner of his usage.)
“I like it a lot,” Rollins said. “You come out, and your team is depending on you to get the outs. I like being in that spot. It’s been pretty fun so far.”
And cliches aside, he is now positioned to win a job in the bullpen. His chief competition, at this point, shapes up as Tyler Olson, who is also seeking to make the jump from Double-A starter to big-league reliever.
Olson’s spring log shows six scoreless innings, while the three other candidates — Lucas Luetge, Rafael Perez and Joe Saunders — have all experienced some rough moments.
“It’s still early,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “One thing I know with veterans is it takes them a little longer in the spring. I’m not going to be quick to judge.”
But McClendon says he harbors no hesitation in promoting a pitcher straight from Double-A and points, as proof, to the decision last spring to break camp with Roenis Elias in the rotation.
“And (Elias) won double figures for us last year,” McClendon said. “I’m not afraid of that. As (former second baseman) Bill Mazeroski said, `Age is just a number.’ I think he was 19 when he (was a rookie).”
OK, no decision is imminent. Got it. But if the Mariners eventually face a choice between Rollins and Olson — and if that competition is viewed as close — circumstances favor Rollins because of his Rule 5 status.
While Olson can simply be reassigned to minor-league camp, Rollins must remain on the big-league roster for the entire season or clear waivers and be offered back to the Astros for $25,000 before he can be sent to the minors.
“If he’s good enough that you’d want to keep him around,” one club official said, “he’s probably too good to clear waivers or for the Astros not to want him back.”
That’s the point, in fact, of the Rule 5 Draft: To prevent players who have sufficient pro service from being held in the minors by another club when they’re good enough to play elsewhere in the big leagues.
Rollins was pitching for Santurce in Puerto Rico, after going 3-4 with a 3.81 ERA in 78 innings last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, when he learned he’d been picked by the Mariners on Dec. 11 in the Rule 5 Draft.
“I had no idea of what was going on,” he recalled. “My phone was blowing up. People were tweeting at me. Then my roommate comes running up and says, `You got picked up by the Mariners!’
“I said, `That’s pretty awesome, dude.’ I was pretty excited about it.”
Now, a spot on the big-league roster is almost within reach.