JUPITER, Fla. • This past December as Cardinals infielder Tyler Greene prepared for the most important spring training of his career, the former first-round pick received a call from Mike Matheny. The manager used words such as "focus" and "opportunity" and suggested Greene steer his workouts toward second base.
Having spent his sporadic major league appearances as a nomadic fielder, Greene heard the instruction but it took a moment to sink in.
"Do you still want me to work in the outfield?" Greene wondered.
As he asked, he understood.
Matheny wasn't encouraging him to get an early start on working at second base, he was telling him to get in his work in so he could start at second base. The job, Matheny told him, is there for the taking.
"There's an opportunity to be out there every day," Greene said. "There are no guarantees or anything like that, but it's a spot that they have made open for competition. That's pretty much the simplicity of it. Here's an opportunity, come ready to play. How many other spots are open?"
As the Cardinals finish their first weekend of full-squad workouts, the answer to Greene's question is none.
An eagerness in the organization to give Greene this chance to start has recast Skip Schumaker.
"I think they know what they have in me, and I think it could be exciting if Tyler puts it all together," Schumaker said. "That's the way it is. I'm here if needed. I'll be ready if things don't go as planned."
That does not mean he's yielding the position.
"I'm still taking groundballs there," he said.
As full-squad camp opened Friday one of the first drills sent the major-league infielders to Field No. 2 to take grounders. The only position to feature three fielders was second, where Greene, Schumaker and Daniel Descalso lined up. It is a weighted competition. General manager John Mozeliak and Matheny have talked about their hopes to find regular playing time for Greene to translate his Class AAA success into the majors.
Greene will get the most exposure at the position, starting many of the spring games so that he can get needed at-bats against major league-quality pitching. Schumaker said he expects to have starts in the outfield, and Descalso is a candidate to start or be a backup at third, short and second.
The three-man derby not only offers one of the more compelling members of camp in Greene, but also three strikingly different styles candidates.
The player with the least experience in his life at second, Schumaker, has the most starts in the majors there, with 331.
Descalso, the most-experienced at the position in the minors, finished as a finalist for the NL Gold Glove at third last season. He is the truest backup to David Freese.
Greene is a shortstop, a former first round draft pick and a kinetic talent who has struggled to a .218 average in the majors.
"We all offer something different," Descalso said. "The coaching staff and 'Mo' are going to watch us pretty close in camp. It's not going to come down to who booted a couple groundballs in early infield work today. I think a lot of things are going to factor into their decision. It could come down to who is swinging the hottest bat when we break camp. Who knows?"
Descalso, 25, earned a spot on the major-league team with a solid spring in 2011, and he spent the entire season in the majors and started half the club's games at third.
A lefthanded hitter with a savvy feel for the strike zone, Descalso also is one of the most reliable fielders on the team. That enhances his value as a utility man while supporting his bid to be the starter at second. Like Greene, he had a conversation with Matheny this winter about starting at second and modified his workouts this winter to focus about two-thirds of the time on fielding at his former position.
Schumaker, 32, signed a two-year, $3-million deal with the Cardinals this winter and has been billed by management as a 'super utility" player. A career outfielder, Schumaker learned to play second base during spring training in 2009 when manager Tony La Russa wanted to find a place for him to play so his bat could stay in the lineup. He and Descalso offer a lefthanded complement to Greene in a platoon that could develop.
"Just because some guys are going to get more of an opportunity this spring than others, doesn't mean you stop working at it," Schumaker said. "If you hit they'll find you a position. That's the old cliché, and I don't think this is going to be any different."
Schumaker brought unusual consistent to a position that has been in flux since Fernando Vina won back-to-back Gold Gloves at second for the Cardinals in 2001 and 2002. Though a transplant, Schumaker was the first second baseman to start at least 100 games for the Cardinals at the position in consecutive seasons since Vina's Gold Glove years.
In four of the previous sixth seasons, the Cardinals haven't had a second baseman start more than 90 games. Seven players started at least eight games at second in 2011, led by Schumaker's 89.
'A Unique skill set'
The position is a transient one for the Cardinals because they've been frugal and inventive to fill it.
"I don't think that's the ideal model, and my hope is that 'Greeny' can take this job and do it," Mozeliak said. "One of the things myself, Mike and the major-league staff thought was intriguing was giving Tyler Greene an opportunity to take this position. His athleticism and what he brings to the table as far as speed and power ... it's a unique skill set. (That) set is something that traditionally we haven't had in our lineup."
Greene, 28, is out of minor-league options and is embarking on a defining spring training, one that will leave him a starter or a utility fielder. That is why the competition is tilted in his direction: urgency.
The organizational optimism comes from his turn at Triple-A Memphis last season, for which he hit .323, slugged .579 and stole 19 bases on 21 tries. His minor-league success contrasts with major-league disappointments, including almost as many strikeouts (87) as total bases (99) in 316 at-bats.
The "time is right" for his opportunity, Matheny said.
After talking with Matheny, Greene shifted his focus to second base, working on the fields in Jupiter since New Year's almost exclusively at second. He likened it to playing "a mirror image" of shortstop, and coach Jose Oquendo has worked with him on the timing of the position.
This is not his first crack at a starting gig with the Cardinals. Two seasons ago, he had an audition to take over at shortstop while Brendan Ryan healed. Greene struggled at the plate, fought discomfort in the field and was one of the first players sent to minor-league camp.
He and the Cardinals believe he's better suited to compete this spring.
This is his second chance.
"Now it's just watch the games be played," Mozeliak said, "and really let the competition begin."