SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles have a dozen starting pitching candidates this spring, though the competition doesn't bother right-hander Steve Johnson.
"It's easier than most people think because this is what you've been doing your whole career," said Johnson, who is coming off an impressive rookie season and is hoping to be the team's fifth starter.
"You are competing every level to beat out people. In the lower levels, it's even a little harder because not only do you have the guys you are trying to beat at that level, but it's the guys that are a level above that and a level above that. It's just trying to outperform every one of them. ... At the same time, you can't really worry about what they've been doing, you've got to do the best you can do and hope that's good enough."
Johnson was plenty good enough for the Orioles last year. He was a pleasant surprise after his Major League debut July 15, posting a 4-0 record and a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts). Johnson, who was also used in the bullpen, allowed nine earned runs on 23 hits and 18 walks with 46 strikeouts over 38 1/3 innings.
"It's like we told you last year, we weren't going to overlook him -- and we didn't," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Johnson, who was one of the early cuts in his first big league camp last spring, but rose on the organization's radar with an impressive Minor League season. "There's not many guys in this camp, with the younger guys with a little bit less experience, that have the numbers he's got in Triple-A last season and what he continued in the big leagues."
Johnson posted a 2.86 ERA in 19 games (14 starts) for Triple-A Norfolk. He struck out 86 and walked 31 in 91 1/3 innings before being promoted to Baltimore, where he was initially used as an extra arm for an overtaxed bullpen. As a reliever, Johnson pitched to a 1.10 ERA in 16 1/3 innings over eight appearances, before winning his first Major League start against the Mariners on Aug. 8.
"Obviously, you get a little more confident knowing, 'Hey, I did well last year,' but you've got to do it again," Johnson said. "You've got to keep doing it over and over. Last year helped me a lot, but there's still a lot of work to do."
Johnson started throwing the first week of January because he said otherwise, his velocity doesn't get up to where he needs it to be. He also reported to camp early after going on a family vacation in Florida.
The Orioles rotation projects to include Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. Johnson, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Jair Jurrjens, T.J. McFarland, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are all being considered for the final spot.
Johnson has options and the Orioles made a lot of roster transactions last season, which is why the 25-year-old points out there is still a "good chance" that should he start the season at Triple-A, he will be able to help the big league club this season. Johnson is helped by his versatility -- he's had success as a starter and a reliever -- and his excellent command. This spring, Johnson is also trying to work on improving his slider.
"It was terrible last year," he said. "And basically, [I need to] just keep throwing strikes. I know I'm good when I can get ahead of hitters. There's something about my fastball that's a little deceptive, I don't know what it is, but when I get ahead of them it's just that much better."
Johnson's fastball fluctuates anywhere from 84-93 mph, which is unusual, even to him.
"I don't know what it is exactly," Johnson said. "I don't really care. I know I can use it to my advantage. There are some days it's more deceptive than others, and I can figure that out by how the hitters react. But I think the fact that I fluctuate my velocity, I don't know why I do that, I don't try to do that, it definitely helps."
Johnson had a left knee issue last year after taking a ball off his right foot in late September, but he's fully recovered from that.
"We thought we might have had to slow-play him early and catch up some on the offseason work he normally does," Showalter said. "But he's catching up real quick. He had a good outing [on Wednesday]."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.