The final roster is far from set, but fans of the Norfolk Tides may get to see some impressive arms — make that pitchers — in the rotation this coming season.
"They could be pretty amazing," said minor-league catcher Caleb Joseph, who spent last season with Class AA Bowie (Md.). "They have created a lot of competition (in spring training). You are going to have guys fighting for spots."
There is a good chance Joseph, who was in spring training with the Orioles, could be catching some of those pitchers at some point this year.
"Norfolk could win 95 games if they don't watch it," Joseph said with a smile. "It is going to be interesting how things shake out. I hope to be part of that at some point."
"It has the potential to be a very, very experienced group," said Mike Griffin, who returns as the Tides' pitching coach in 2012. "I don't know (exactly) who they will be, but I am pleased with the pitchers we got."
There is a chance the Norfolk starting rotation could include several players with big league experience such as Brian Matusz or Chris Tillmanif they don't make the Orioles' staff. But Matusz is off to a strong start in spring training and looks to rebound from a rough season in 2011.
"I am real excited about the talent level of these players," said Ron Johnson, who is the Tides' new manager this season.
A pitcher on the way up is Oliver Drake, who won 11 games between Frederick and Bowie last year and threw one game for the Tides.
"There are a lot of talented players. It could be a good group," Drake said. A late-round pick out of Navy, Drake is attending his first big-league training camp. "It is a great group of guys. I try to take away as much as I can from these guys."
Orioles' minor-leaguer Steve Johnson, who pitched for the Tides in 2011, said this year's pitching staff could be impressive.
"It is obviously going to be very good. Look at all of the pitchers we have," said Johnson, looking around the Orioles' clubhouse in spring training. "We are going to have a lot of good players" headed to Norfolk.
Joe Mahoney, a former University of Richmond standout who was the organization's minor-league player of the year for the Orioles in 2010, was sent to Norfolk last week. A left-handed hitter, Mahoney plays first base and left field. He battled quad injuries last season while hitting .289 with 11 home runs in just 85 games at Class AA Bowie.
"It is a big year for me. I have to stay healthy. I have to take it week by week," said Mahoney, before getting two hits in the spring training opener against Tampa Bay. "Hopefully I can put up big numbers."
"Most likely, but you never know," he said of beginning the season in Norfolk. "It is baseball; anything can happen."
Another top prospect who may play at Norfolk at some point this year is third baseman/second baseman/left fielder L.J. Hoes, who hit .305 last year at Bowie. He begins this year as the No. 5 prospect in the Baltimore system, according to Baseball America.
"It would be a great step for me. It would be the next step for me," said Hoes, who grew up near Bowie. One of his best childhood friends is Brett Blake, a recent graduate of Old Dominion.
"I am familiar with the area," said Hoes, who played in youth baseball tournaments in the Tidewater area.
Another young prospect who could see time with the Tides is Xavier Avery, a center fielder who the Orioles convinced to give up a football scholarship to the University of Georgia to sign with the club out of high school. He is a left-handed hitter and thrower who patrolled center for Bowie last summer and stole 39 bases for the Baysox.
Ron Johnson (no relation to pitcher Steve) is in his first year in the Orioles' system after 12 years with the Boston Red Sox.
"He is a player's manager," said Griffin, who once worked with Johnson at Class AAA Pawtucket. "He does a good job with player development."
Johnson was the first-base coach for the Red Sox in 2010 and 2011 and was the manager of Class AAA Pawtucket from 2005-09. Pawtucket, like Norfolk, is in the International League. A former All-American at Fresno State, Johnson played in 22 big league games in parts of three seasons with the Royals and Expos.
"I am really excited to manage again," Johnson said. "This is a unique opportunity."
Johnson was a minor-league instructor in the Red Sox system when Dan Duquette, now the first-year general manager for the Orioles, held that job with the Red Sox.
The new hitting coach for the Tides is Denny Walling, a former big leaguer who has lived for several years in Waynesboro.
Johnson takes over for former Red Sox catcher Gary Allenson, who will be the manager this summer of the Aberdeen IronBirds in the New York Penn League. The Tides will host the Orioles in an exhibition game April 4 and open the season the next day at Charlotte.
Norfolk Tides' key dates
April 4: Exhibition game against Baltimore Orioles at Harbor Park (3 p.m.)
April 5: Season opener at Charlotte (7:15 p.m.)
April 9: Home opener against Gwinnett (7:15 p.m.)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun