That feeling of youthful exuberance came straight from a group of prime candidates lined up to fill the slot in Charlie Haeger, John Danks and Lance Broadway, who were amongst a couple handfuls of players already in the Kino Sports Complex two days before Saturday's official report date for the club's pitchers and catchers. It's a job opening that has been on their collective minds since general manager Ken Williams followed a Winter Meetings deal involving Freddy Garcia by trading Brandon McCarthy just before Christmas, creating the rotation's void.
Arriving in Tucson this week made the task at hand seem a bit more tangible, instead of dealing with hypothetical guesses regarding the prospective candidates for about the past two months.
"I was kind of surprised by the McCarthy trade," said Haeger, unique in this particular group as a knuckleball specialist. "We heard rumors last year of Freddy going. To lose two guys like that and open up some spots, obviously that was good for my career, but I was still surprised to see McCarthy go."
"It's definitely going to be interesting," added the right-hander Broadway, the team's top draft pick in 2005, who is coming off a strong 2006 season in which he finished with a 2.74 ERA for Double-A Birmingham. "I would rather have a spot that I think is open, rather than have five veterans where you know there is no shot."
In viewing the fifth starter competition much like some sort of Top 10 ranking, Gavin Floyd would be looked upon as the preseason No. 1 by just a few votes over Haeger. Danks, acquired along with Nick Masset and Jacob Rasner from Texas in the McCarthy trade, and Broadway would fall just behind this pair, with left-hander Heath Phillips and righty Sean Tracey being labeled as others receiving strong consideration.
Floyd, 24, might have earned that status of favorite before he even joined the White Sox as part of the Garcia trade. It was Floyd's impressive work during the Arizona Fall League, witnessed firsthand by Williams, that has the GM more than encouraged in the right-hander taking a major step up from his previous 7-5 showing and 6.96 ERA at the Major League level.
Haeger has already heard concern expressed by pitching coach Don Cooper and Williams over evaluating his knuckleball in the dry Arizona climate, where the pitch doesn't seem to be nearly as effective. But Haeger is more worried about simply throwing strikes and using what he learned during his first Spring Training last year as part of his upcoming 2007 showing.
"I'm more confident among the guys -- [I] sort of know everyone and know a little bit more about how Coop works and [manager] Ozzie [Guillen] works," said Haeger of having one Cactus League season under his belt, despite finishing with a 10.45 ERA in six games, including 19 hits allowed and a team-high eight walks over 10 1/3 innings.
"But I think they are going to be looking for me to get the ball over the plate. The knuckleball won't move quite as much, but if I execute pitches the right way, they are still going to move.
"All of it's on me," Haeger added. "[The knuckleball] was OK [in Arizona] last year, but I'm not going to blame the atmosphere for anything."
Danks, 21, understands that big-league experience for Floyd and Haeger makes them the pair to chase as the fifth starter competition begins. But like the other arms in contention, the young southpaw also knows that if he performs to the best of his ability, a chance should afford itself at some point during the 2007 campaign.
Broadway holds a similar feeling, with possibly a bit more confidence. Even before the offseason trades, Broadway told MLB.com late last October that he was approaching this Spring Training as if a spot in the rotation was on the line. In the process of preparing, that dream became a bit more of a reality.
"There's not really any extra pressure added, but it will be more fun," said Broadway of the fifth starter battle. "Baseball is fun, but it's even more fun to compete. When you know you have no shot, it's not the same. But thinking you have a shot and feeling like on you are on an even playing field, it will make things exciting."
"From everything I've been told, they will give the job to whoever earns it in camp," Danks added. "That's the mentality I'm taking -- show my abilities, have a good camp and let all the rest take care of itself."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.