Late on Sunday evening, after two scoreless innings in relief, Ross Stripling leaned against a locker in the Dodgers clubhouse at Camelback Ranch. Around him lay evidence of the obstacles preventing him from breaking camp as a member of the starting rotation, as he did as a rookie last season.
Behind him hung the jerseys of Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir. In front of him were the lockers of Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Across the room was the space for precocious 20-year-old Julio Urias.
Stripling is not a fool. He studied finance at Texas A&M and holds a stockbroker's license. He understands that as one of the least-experienced members of the group, one with minor league options and bullpen experience, the route from here to the rotation is all uphill.
"You just have to use it as a motivator," Stripling said. "If you let it bother you, or intimidate you, you won't have a chance here. You just won't."
His versatility aids the front office as it assembles the roster. It also may be his best chance to make the club.
Unlike last season, when the Dodgers often carried eight relievers, the team intends to open the season with a more conventional seven-man group. Manager Dave Roberts indicated the team would like to have a long reliever. They might fill that role with Stripling, a 27-year-old right-hander.
"He's definitely in the mix for the 'pen," Roberts said. "If you look at the potential construction of our 25-man roster, you've got to have some length. Ross can pitch in a lot of different roles. He showed that last year."
Three weeks from opening day, the composition of the rotation is starting to take shape. The favorites to join Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda appear to be McCarthy and Wood.
Ryu has made progress, but after sitting out most of the last two seasons because of shoulder surgery, Robertssuggested the pace for Ryu's spring would be "deliberate." Mired in an ongoing battle with his delivery, Kazmir won't pitch in a game this week. Brock Stewart has been shut down because of shoulder tendinitis.
The Dodgers remain undecided on the fate of Urias. If the team puts Urias in the rotation, Wood could also profile as a long reliever. The Dodgers are more likely to stash Urias in extended spring training in April to save his innings for September and October.
Roberts has yet to tip his hand. McCarthy will start Wednesday and Ryu will pitch Thursday. Wood will start Friday night as part of a split-squad day.
After an outing over the weekend, Wood suggested there was little the pitchers could prove this spring. Each man holds a lengthy track record in the majors. The front office will not be swayed by Cactus League performance.
"They know what we can do," Wood said. "I don't really consider it much of a competition. They're going to take who they want to take, and put guys where they want to put them."
That leaves Stripling in limbo. He could be a starter with triple-A Oklahoma City. Or he could fill a variety of roles on the big league staff, as he did in 2016.
Before last season, Stripling had never pitched above double A. A cavalcade of injuries forced him into the rotation to begin the year. In his debut outing, he pitched into the eighth inning against San Francisco without yielding a hit. In his subsequent seven starts, he had a 5.60 earned-run average.
After a relief appearance May 22, Stripling undertook an awkward summer. The Dodgers optioned him to the minors. A week later, he was put on the disabled list. The official diagnosis was "lower-body fatigue," but Stripling was actually being kept at Camelback Ranch to curtail his innings and build stamina in his legs.
Stripling returned to the Dodgers in July. He made five starts in August with a 4.18 ERA. He transitioned into a relief role in September, and finished the season with a 2.22 ERA out of the bullpen.
Stripling did not complain about the arrangement. He acknowledged that a club with championship aspirations cannot afford to be sentimental toward inexperienced pitchers. In that vein, he found a tinge of jealousy for recently traded starters such as Jose De Leon (Tampa Bay) and Chase De Jong (Seattle).
"They're going to have an opportunity to fail a couple times, and get chances to stay in the big leagues," Stripling said. "Here, there's the mentality that there's so many guys, you have to keep doing well to stay.
"You obviously always pitch that way. You want to do well. But that's always in the back of your mind: 'Man, if I don't do well, Brock Stewart is there.' … You think about that."
Stripling was not complaining. It is part of the reality of being a young pitcher on a talent-laden roster.
In the slow hours of spring training, Stripling said, the players often brainstorm how the front office will deploy the talent. Who will start? Who will relieve? Who will wait in the minors?
During one conversation, 23-year-old right-hander Trevor Oaks asked Stripling what it would take to reach the majors. Oaks dominated in double A in 2016, but the line of prospects ahead of him is long. Do what you did last season, Stripling told him, and the team will give you a shot.
When you get here, Stripling continued, don't be intimidated. And do whatever the club asks.
"The Dodgers keep giving you chances," Stripling said. "But they expect success."