Roster hopefuls cope with Spring Training uncertainty
Fringe players learn to set aside the stresses of trying to make a big league ballclub
PHOENIX -- Inside every Spring Training camp, there is an opportunity waiting to be seized. During early-to-mid March, about 50 players stand inside each Major League team's clubhouse. Half of them will be sent down to the Minor Leagues.
Teams try to assemble the best 25 players for their Opening Day roster, making the battles throughout Spring Training heated.
D-backs utility man Matt Tuiasosopo is competing to make the team, but his first 28 at-bats in Spring Training have not gone as planned. He has collected a mere two hits and a .080 batting average. Tuiasosopo, 27, has primarily spent time in Triple-A, with brief MLB appearances.
The Tigers gave Tuiasosopo 164 at-bats in 2013 -- the most of his four-year career. He posted a career-high .244 batting average. Tuiasosopo said he used to stress out about results, but now he focuses on "working the daily process."
"You try to hold on to your career so tightly. This is a game of failure," Tuiasosopo said. "As long as I stay within the process, it frees you up [to] be confident. In this game, you've got to be as steady as you can."
Going up and down from the Minors to the Majors is taxing. Brewers pitcher Donovan Hand experienced it last season. At the end of Spring Training in 2013, Hand stood narrowly on the outside looking in. Hand, 27, eventually joined the Brewers on May 26, and he believes his offseason improvements will put him in Milwaukee earlier this year.
"The slow curveball was kind of my pitch last year. I [learned] to use the [curveball] as a strikeout pitch," Hand said. "My thing is to miss in good places, miss out of the zone. When I missed, I missed in the middle of the plate."
Hand has received the nod in four Spring Training games to date, tallying a 1-0 record and a 3.60 ERA in five innings.
Brett Jackson, 25, entered the Cubs' facility in a similar spot. The outfield prospect saw action in 2012 by logging 44 games, but the rest of his five years came at lower levels. Jackson got off a slow start this March, compiling a .143 batting average with two RBIs.
After an ideal start to Jackson's career, he took a step backward a year ago.
"Adversity, challenge, struggle, I have seen all of that. I came back, and I got injured. Playing through times of my career where I'm not confident at the plate," Jackson said. "And how I've come out of that, I'm really proud of. Struggling in the Minor Leagues and the big leagues has put a chip on my shoulder and made me a better player in the long run."
Tuiasosopo knows baseball adversity means little in the grand scheme.
"There are people in Africa and in the real world going through real adversity. Reminding myself, this is not who I am, this is just what I do," Tuiasosopo said. "There are more important things that people are really dealing with."
Despite the pressure facing Tuiasosopo, Hand and Jackson, they seem calm and plan on enjoying the ride. Jackson embraces the upcoming road toward earning a spot on the Cubs' roster.
"I think you can get caught up in making the team and create some anxiety for yourself. Baseball, for me at this stage of my career -- if I'm not having fun, what's the point?" Jackson said. "I am trying to have a great time every day. When it comes down to it, competition is in my nature."
All three players said they are going to be fine regardless of whether they start 2014 in the Majors or Minors. For Jackson though, nothing compares to playing in Wrigley Field in front of Cubs fans. Jackson speaks fondly of his teammates and understands his roster reward might be their misery -- or vice versa.
"[Making the Major League roster] is everything we have all worked for. That's the ultimate goal," Jackson said. "You have the motivation of trying to make the team. And you go out and you work your hardest and play your hardest, and what happens, happens."
Religion aids Tuiasosopo throughout the exhaustive, frustrating and unclear process. In the past, he always wanted to gain acceptance from the fans and the front office, and he refused to settle for less. That way of thinking is ancient history for Tuiasosopo.
"[Religion] helps me to be free, have fun, and go crush," he said. "God's in control of my life. Whether he wanted me to be here, whether he wanted me to be somewhere else, in this game or outside of this game, I truly believe I will be there."
Ben Haber is a senior majoring in journalism at Arizona State University. This story is part of a Cactus League partnership between MLB.com and Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.