By Matt Vensel
11:15 AM EST, March 4, 2011
The Orioles have given Baltimore 13 straight seasons of losing baseball, a streak that would make them the laughingstock of the major leagues if not for that train wreck of an organization in Pittsburgh. There still has been plenty of giggling at the Orioles’ expense since 1997, but for the first time in what feels like a long time, people are taking the Orioles seriously heading into 2011.
In the short-term, most Orioles fans have defined success as 82-plus victories. Once that happens, they will worry about long-term goals such as playoff contention, division titles and World Series championships. Well, after the city throws a ticker-tape parade celebrating a winning season, that is.
Will this be the summer the Orioles break .500? In this week’s Five for Friday post, I will highlight the five biggest reasons to be optimistic that the Orioles will get it done in 2011 (you better start planning that parade, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake).
5. A lineup without holes: The Orioles might not have the middle-of-the-lineup firepower that the Yankees and Red Sox have. But on paper, they now have a complete lineup from top to bottom that should make the offense significantly more formidable than a year ago when the Orioles finished 27th in runs. Gone are the easy outs from players such as Julio Lugo and Cesar Izturis -- well, Izturis’ easy outs will be on the bench -- after the Orioles brought in Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy. So plan on making fewer beer runs and bathroom breaks when the Orioles are up to bat this season.
4. Vlad the Impaler: The Orioles weren’t able to buy a big bat that keeps fearful pitchers awake at night, but in Guerrero, they have a veteran slugger in the clean-up spot that opponents will be very wary of. Guerrero batted .300 with 29 homers, 115 RBI and a .496 slugging percentage for the Rangers last year (this is a post about optimism, so let’s ignore that only nine of those homers came after the All-Star break). If the 36-year-old can give the Orioles 80 percent of that production in the No. 4 spot in the order, they will be very satisfied.
3. The relative health of Roberts: Brian Roberts, the Orioles’ leadoff hitter, played in just 59 games in 2010 because of a herniated disk in his back, and the offense struggled without its catalyst. The return of Roberts in late July was a significant factor in the Orioles’ strong finish in 2010. He gets on base, makes things happen on the base paths and, most importantly, sets the tone for the rest of the lineup with his epic-long at-bats. Roberts gave the team a scare last week when he missed three days of practice with a stiff neck, but it appears to big no deal at the moment. If he’s healthy and productive, there will be a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup.
2. The most interesting manager in the world: Buck Showalter scared the Orioles into playing good baseball when he arrived in August, quickly becoming a cult hero with his signature scowl, no-nonsense approach and a bunch of wins. The Orioles went 34-23 under Showalter, and his history suggests that the trend will continue.
1. The young starting rotation: Viewed as a vulnerability by some baseball insiders, the Orioles rotation should be a huge reason for optimism for 2011 and beyond. Young starters Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen pitched very well under Showalter -- it’s that mystical, mythical Buck effect -- and at least one of them will ascent to stardom this season (my money is on Matusz). Meanwhile, enigmatic Chris Tillman and talented lefty prospect Zach Britton will be waiting in the wings should one fatigue or falter. And let’s not forget about Jeremy Guthrie, who is miscast as an ace, but is still a pretty good pitcher who would benefit from a bump in run support. The Orioles’ hopes rest on the arms of their starters, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
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