When Buck’s Birds migrated to Sarasota for their first spring training camp under their mean-mugging new manager, Baltimore buzzed about the upcoming season. It wasn’t just the token hype that all 30 major-league teams -- even the ones in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Kansas City -- are experiencing this time of year. It’s legitimate optimism that the Orioles will be relevant, winners and maybe even playoff contenders in 2011.
The Orioles will be better than they were a year ago when they face-planted out of contention before the end of April, fired manager Dave Trembley, ditched interim manager Juan Samuel in early August and closed the season with that unlikely 34-23 finish under Showalter to salvage a 66-96 season. But how much better will they be with an upgraded offense and the most interesting manager in the world in their dugout? We will soon find out.
Tonight, we get our first official look at an Orioles’ lineup that has no holes and seven batters capable of hitting 20 home runs. After the team finished 27th in runs scored in 2010, president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail traded for Reynolds, a glorified softball ringer who cranked 104 home runs his last three seasons in Arizona and struck out more than any player in MLB history. He dealt for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who replaces Cesar Izturis, one of the league's least productive hitters. And it took a while, but he convinced aging sluggers Derrek Lee and Guerrero to come take aim at the Warehouse.
Kudos to MacPhail for adding all that offensive firepower without mortgaging the team’s bright future.
For the Orioles to hang tough in the AL East, though, those youngsters will have to take steps forward, something that has happened in the past for teams managed by Showalter but is no guarantee. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters must continue to develop, but to win in the best division in baseball, you need pitching. So the Baltimore rotation will have to be the team’s cornerstone, and it showed signs of crumbling this spring.
Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen got nailed by liners late in spring training, and along with Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman, no young starter on the Opening Day roster was sharp in Grapefruit League play. (Zach Britton was another story, but the organization’s top pitching prospect will start the season in Triple-A Norfolk.) But we saw what these guys were capable of late in 2010 -- for Matusz, it appeared to be stardom -- and if they can pitch at that level this season, the rotation might not be the liability some national analysts say it is.
Of course, that’s not the only question the Orioles must answer once the games actually start counting in the standings. The health and productivity of four 30-something players -- second baseman and offensive catalyst Brian Roberts, oft-injured starter Justin Duchscherer, Lee and Guerrero -- are concerns. The bullpen is deep, but there is no clear closer. And Buck’s bunch has to survive one of the toughest schedules in baseball.
If the breaks don’t go the Orioles’ way -- something that hasn’t happened in 13 years, or at least it feels that way -- they won’t be able to seriously contend for a playoff spot. But if the baseball gods take it easy on the Orioles and they start the season strong, look out. Buck’s Birds will be feisty and competitive, making things uncomfortable for the Red Sox and Yankees and Rays on their way to their best record in years.
Will they break .500? That’s what everyone is asking on those bar stools and office chairs. It won’t take magic. That’s why the optimism this spring is legitimate and not just a fleeting feeling like in years past.