SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles pitching prospects Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson sat shoulder to shoulder at their lockers Monday morning, goofing around with their cellphones as they waited to take the field at the Ed Smith Stadium spring training complex.
They are, by the account of both, good friends who have come up through the minor leagues together, and they are locked in competition for what might be one bullpen/spot starter role on the major league pitching staff.
It's not an unusual situation. Prospects grow close on the farm, then move up the developmental ladder side by side until they get to major league camp. Then it's game on, which you might think would create an uncomfortable situation and strain a friendship.
Except that it doesn't, at least not in this case.
"We're definitely competing, but there are plenty of spots in the big leagues," Wright said. "I think our mentality is that we've come up together. We are good friends. We get along. We both know that each other works hard, we're good people and we both deserve to be here. When you have a friend like Tyler, you pull for him just as hard as you do yourself."
Wilson echoes that sentiment. Both young men seem to understand that there might be one job available on the Opening Day major league roster — or maybe none — but they seem to grasp that there's a bigger picture here.
"We both pull for each other in a lot of ways," Wilson said. "I want to see him succeed as much as he wants me to succeed. It's really encouraging to be a part of a relationship like that instead of wishing for failure or something, because that's not good for anybody."
Wilson said one of his big thrills at the major league level last year was being called up in time to be in Baltimore the night that Wright made his major league debut against the Los Angeles Angels and threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings to get the victory.
Three days later, Wilson made his big league debut out of the bullpen and pitched a scoreless inning against the Seattle Mariners. He would get the victory in his next relief appearance and pitched well in his first major league start against the Chicago White Sox.
Both made good impressions on the major league coaching staff during multiple call-ups last year, which brought them to training camp this year to compete with offseason acquisitions Vance Worley and Odrisamer Despaigne for the last opening in the starting rotation.
The nature of the competition changed when the Orioles agreed to terms with veteran starter Yovani Gallardo, but Wright said that won't change the way he goes about his business this spring … and beyond.
"I kind of knew we were signing him," Wright said. "When someone's pursuing someone that heavily, you usually end up getting him. ... I'm going to approach it the same way I've been approaching it so far. I'm trying to be an option straight out of camp. There's always something that happens. You can't really plan for it, but I'm trying to put myself in the best situation possible."
That's the right approach, because there's no way to predict exactly what roles will be available six weeks from now.
"It's no secret. We all know where the competition will be if everybody stays healthy," manager Buck Showalter said just before the Orioles came to terms with Gallardo. "Even if we sign a starting pitcher, we're still going to need everybody, and I guarantee there's going to be a bump in the road for one of the five guys, physically or something else along the way."
Though all the rotation slots are tentatively filled, both Wright and Wilson still will compete for the chance to start if an opportunity arises, but might be competing for a long-relief role. It's possible that both will end up in a situation similar to last year, when they were regulars on the "Norfolk shuttle."
Wright pitched primarily as a starter, but did make three scoreless relief appearances. Wilson also spent time in the rotation and bullpen, distinguishing himself in relief with four games in which he gave up two runs over 11 innings.
Wilson said that being together when they made their big league debuts and during two other stays with the Orioles helped them get comfortable and acclimated.
"That was a process we got to endure together," he said. "We got to share the ups and downs … the travel ... all the new things. Rather than have to do it alone, we had each other's back."
He can't imagine what it would have been like if they were constantly worried about the impact that the success of the other might have on their careers.
"When you start comparing yourself to somebody else or compare your success to somebody else's, it's just a downward spiral — it's never-ending," Wilson said. "The bottom line is to win. Sure, we have individual goals and we both want to be there together. Everybody wants to be in the big leagues, but as soon as you start pitting yourself against somebody and comparing your results to somebody else's, there's no gain from that. There's no way to be fully content and really happy, because there's so much that's outside of your control."
Teammate Chris Tillman watches the two of them across the spring clubhouse and remembers what it was like when he was coming up alongside Jake Arrieta, David Hernandez, Brian Matusz and several other promising arms.
"It was easy for me because you want to win, period," Tillman said. "When we did come up there were a lot of us who were friends competing against each other and I think it helped me because you have friends who are going out and doing the same thing. You know they're on your side and you know you can trust them and they're confident in you and it makes it that much easier. I know those guys are the same way."
Tillman acknowledged that there is so much at stake that competing against a close friend might be uncomfortable, but not in an organization that puts such an emphasis on great clubhouse chemistry and camaraderie.
"I could see it being a tough situation, but I've never been in a spot where I wanted a guy to do bad so that I was the guy," Tillman said. "You know, the pitchers kind of stick together and the position players kind of stick together and the pitchers root for each other no matter what. My hardest days are watching the other guys pitch. I get more nervous and stuff when I'm not pitching because I want them to get the results they deserve."
That kind of environment doesn't evolve by accident.
"We talk about it a lot," Showalter said. "Why would you make somebody's path harder that you're counting on to help you win? For one, [mutual support] shows how much confidence you've got in your ability. You're not pulling for someone to fail. I think they also trust. They know who we are and they know that if it doesn't happen for them initially, it's going to happen somewhere along the line."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.