SARASOTA, Fla. - For left-hander Troy Patton, spring training feels the same as last year. It also feels different.
Patton showed up in camp a few years ago wondering if he had turned invisible. He went on road trips and didn't pitch. He seemed to have fallen out of favor, and out of any long-range plans.
Last spring, he had to beat out Zach Phillips for the job of sole left-hander in the bullpen. The competition went down to the final day. Phillips still had a minor league option remaining, which worked in Patton's favor.
And now? Patton is coming off the finest season of his major league career and is a lock to break camp with the team unless the unexpected happens and he's traded.
He has every reason to feel entitled, to believe that he's the top southpaw in the 'pen, but it's not that way at all. Patton won't allow it.
"No, I don't feel that way and I don't think Buck (Showalter) would want me to feel that way, honestly," Patton said before yesterday's intrasquad game. "Just from the way that I was handled last season, I feel like Buck likes us on our toes. He hates roles in the bullpen other than Jim (Johnson).
"I would never think of myself as the top lefty. I'm honestly trying to treat it like last season, where it was a good competition all the way through through the end. We've got good lefties here."
Patton rattles off a few names - Daniel Schlereth, Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland and Tsuyoshi Wada, who underwent ligament-reconstructive surgery on his elbow last summer and probably won't pitch before May or June. Brian Matusz also must be in every discussion despite his latest opportunity to be a starter.
"There's good lefties to compete with," Patton continued. "We're stocked full of pitching, so I don't think of it that way. I'm more secure because I did sign a one-year deal, so that makes me feel better about my security in general, but my place on the team, it doesn't feel any different, really."
At this point in the interview, I requested a minute for rebuttal. Patton registered a 2.43 ERA in a career-high 54 games last season, with 12 walks and 49 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings. He's never been this safe, never been so firmly entrenched in a team's plans.
"I shouldn't say I feel the same," Patton said. "I feel much closer to my teammates. Last season was a good bonding situation through the close games that we played. We went through a lot together, so I feel much closer to every one of these guys that are important guys on the team. That's a benefit."
OK, that will have to suffice. Patton just won't allow himself to totally relax and make any assumptions about his standing on the club.
Showalter recently mentioned how Patton could serve as a long man of sorts if the Orioles need innings covered in certain games. Patton was a starter in the minors.
"I might not ever be a true long guy for him, but if I can eat two-plus innings up and we have other guys who can do the same, then we can, combined, get the effort we need to," Patton said.
"I'll be stretched out a couple times, probably to two innings, but the adrenaline of game speed can carry you past two innings. But I'd also like to point out that there's a good chance that a converted starter will be in our bullpen, too, so I think that'll be a good benefit to have a right-handed option, too, that can go multiple innings. I don't know who it's going to be, but it seems like that's a good possibility of happening."
Showalter can be trusted to get the most out of his relievers. No one in baseball manages a bullpen better than him.
"The reason I thought he should have been manager of the year was you don't win one-run games with poor decisions by the manager on who to put in," Patton said. "Think about how many of those games could have easily been lost with the wrong pitching move, and somehow Buck managed to make the right one - to pull me out at the right point, to put me in at the right point. I think he does an unbelievable job of knowing his players and when to trust them and when to put faith in them and when it's time to move on to the next guy."
Patton is the latest Oriole to give his approval to the front office's "inactivity" over the winter, as it's been described in various publications.
"I read things about the inactivity of our team in the offseason, and when you think about how much chemistry means in a game like baseball and how great our chemistry was last year, you can understand why our front office wouldn't want to tinker with too many things," Patton said. "We've got young, athletic players who are healthy. We've got a lineup that should put up runs and we've got a bullpen that should shut them down. Why tinker with too many things? I know they wanted a bat, but we've got guys who can hit. I think it makes us really confident."