JUPITER, Fla. -- Players at spring training fall into three general categories. Established major-leaguers with guaranteed contracts are here to get themselves ready for the regular season. Very young players are trying to make good first impressions before they head off to the bush leagues.
The players with the most to gain and the most to lose in the spring are those in between, trying to make the big-league team, but with no guarantees. Reliever Sam Tuivailala is only 23, but he has already learned that opportunities aren't there forever.
"Everyone has a clock on their back," Tuivailala said. "My time was up. I was lucky enough to have a Plan B."
Tuivailala was just 19 when his first door closed. A third baseman stuck in rookie ball for the third straight season, he was a career .219 hitter when his manager at Johnson City asked him to step into his office and close the door. Several teams had wanted to draft him out of Aragon High in the San Francisco area as a pitcher. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him as a hitter, but they were ready to go to Plan B.
It has worked out well thus far. Tuivailala made his major-league debut two Septembers ago in Cincinnati, a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Last year, he was called up three times and contributed, pitching to a 3.07 ERA and striking out 20 batters in 14 2/3 innings. Now, he's intent on breaking camp with the team for the first time.
To stick might require a bit more finesse than Tuivailala showed early in his pitching career. Last May, Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist started insisting he throw cutters as a complement to his upper-90s fastball and slider. Tuivailala said it started feeling more natural this offseason. If he can master it this spring, he thinks it will help him throw off hitters' timing and make his four-seam fastball seem faster.
As a result, his career timeframe could speed up.
"I just wanted to come this spring to win a job," he said. "I'm trying to get in that bullpen and show myself I can be consistent. I'm looking forward to it and I feel pretty good."