Orioles right-hander Pedro Strop knows he exceeded all expectations when he joined the club last September.
He also knows that goes only so far this spring — when the hard-throwing reliever is basically pitching for his Orioles life.
The 26-year-old is out of options, meaning if he doesn't make the team this spring, he will have to clear waivers before he can be sent to the minors.
He is not a lock for April because he fills the same role for the Orioles — right-handed short relief — as more established veterans such as Luis Ayala, Kevin Gregg, Darren O'Day and Matt Lindstrom. Strop also could get squeezed out if the Orioles decide to go with two left-handers in the bullpen. To his credit, Strop is not doing the roster calculations in his head.
"I'm just thinking to try and put everything away and just try to do my thing, do my job and do the things that are going to be good for the team," said Strop, who has allowed one run in four innings this spring (2.25 ERA). "I'll do whatever I can do to prepare here in spring training on the things that I know will work in the season."
Acquired from the Texas Rangers last September as part of the transaction that sent Michael Gonzalez to Texas, Strop didn't allow a run in his first nine games with the Orioles and ended the season with a 0.73 ERA in 12 appearances. He impressed his new organization, including manager Buck Showalter then, and is still doing it now.
"This is not just something that all the sudden showed up, either," Showalter said about Strop. "He has had success in the big leagues before. It's not like all of a sudden he started doing well for us. … Obviously, you look at September and March with cautious eyes, but also keep in mind this isn't the first time he has showed up on the horizon."
Strop has appeared in each of the previous three seasons for the Rangers and had a 3.72 ERA in 11 games with Texas last year. But he continually shuttled between Triple-A and the majors, and he said he never really relaxed and pitched his best.
"Pretty much, in my career, in my mind, I have had to try figure out why I 'm not the guy I know I can be," said Strop, whose arsenal includes a mid-90s fastball. "Maybe I've always tried to do more than I could do. … It's all about confidence, and [the Orioles] gave me the confidence I needed."
Once he realized that he wasn't going back to the minors, and that Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair were in his corner, Strop settled into a groove.
"That's what I think I needed: confidence — from both sides. They gave me that confidence, and that's when I realized that if they had confidence in me, I had to have it in myself," Strop said. "And that's why things are going better. I am trying to do everything to keep that confidence and go from there."
Strop was signed by the Colorado Rockies out of the Dominican Republic in 2002 as a middle infielder, but he never hit over .240 in a minor league season and was switched to the mound in 2006.
"You kind of throw out his age," Showalter said. "He's really a puppy as pitching goes."
Strop had some modest success as a pitcher before being released by the Rockies in 2008 after an elbow injury. His crisp fastball, above-average splitter and power slider intrigued the prospect-heavy Rangers, who signed him to a minor league deal before the 2009 season, but they had little room for him. So Showalter, Adair and others with knowledge of the Rangers' system targeted Strop when trade talks heated up last summer.
"He is a great kid, very athletic, you look at his background. And you love the way he competes," Adair said. "We had an opportunity for him, and his opportunities in Texas were limited."
Still, Strop finds himself again stuck in a roster crunch. This winter, the Orioles added O'Day off the waiver wire, Ayala as a free agent and Lindstrom in a trade. Strop said he watched the moves being made — but didn't take anything personally.
"I know those guys, and I know they can pitch. And when I first heard it, I thought, 'Yeah, we are going to be good. We are going to have a good bullpen.' But I also was thinking that I know I can make this team," Strop said. "And whatever happens, happens. Because I know this is a business and whatever they are doing is because they think it is going to be better for the team."
Given the Orioles' last-place standing and Strop's upside, it's hard to envision a scenario where they won't try to keep him on the 25-man roster. The sense is he will be claimed on waivers if they try to sneak him through.
"That's probably another reason why we've got all these [scouts] following us around, a guy like him," Showalter said.
Strop hates the idea of moving on again — especially since he feels like he immediately fit in when he arrived in Baltimore. The outgoing Strop knew several Orioles such as Tommy Hunter and Zach Phillips from their days together in the Rangers organization. And he quickly bonded with others such as Alfredo Simon last year and now Ayala, who is trying to teach Strop his sinker.
"It's going to be tough because these guys are great teammates. I am already in the group," Strop said about the possibility of going elsewhere. "I like the team, I like the coaching staff, they've really helped me. So it could be tough for me, but if it happens, you'll have to keep going."
Showalter's not revealing his roster three weeks before Opening Day. But there's no question he's intrigued by Strop's future, which could include a closer's role one day.
"I think the sky is the limit with Pedro. I think it's a big year for him to really establish himself," Showalter said. "You see a lot of guys that pitch in the sixth, seventh, eighth innings, the really good ones are the ones you're always thinking there might be another role for them down the road. That's what you would like to get to the point, a Mariano Rivera setting up for John Wetteland."
Showalter then laughed:
"I don't think we are there yet."
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