Carroll County Times

Commentary: A step back doesn't mean a bad year for Orioles

Traditionally, right about now, sports fans in this area are arguing about whether the Orioles will win 70 or 75 games. Whether they will finish fourth or fifth in the American League East. And counting ahead to see how many months it is until the Ravens open training camp.

Totally different vibe this year.

There are actual expectations attached to the beginning of this season, the product of a 93 wins and a playoff appearance a year ago that made everyone forget all about the previous 14 sorry, sub-.500 seasons.

OK, let's get this out of the way. The Orioles won't win as many games this season as they did in 2012.

That team was not a fluke, but that team did some fluky things. Like going 29-9 in one-run games. And going undefeated when leading after seven innings. That doesn't happen two years in a row.

But that's OK.

Heading into a season in which 12 or 13 of the 15 teams in the American League have postseason aspirations, with the AL East more unpredictable and wide open than it has ever been, even a modest step back could still mean an exciting season with plenty of meaningful baseball in September and perhaps another dip into the postseason.

MLB is the new NFL in terms of parity.

The last eight teams standing in football's postseason didn't include a single "no-way" outlier. Broncos, Patriots, Ravens, Texans, Falcons, Niners, Packers, Seahawks. If you couldn't have picked at least seven of those last Labor Day, you weren't paying attention.

Meanwhile, baseball's final eight last fall included the Orioles and Athletics, who were given zero chance at this time last year.

Thus, nearly every AL team - OK, with the exceptions of the Twins and Astros - goes into this season believing they can make the playoffs.

And they might be right. The Royals, the Mariners, the Indians, they all did enough over the winter to realistically think they can be this year's Orioles or A's.

As for the Orioles, it was a bit of a stunner that the front office essentially took the offseason off.

They made no acquisition that seems significant even as divisional rival Toronto was adding numerous high-profile, high-dollar players. (Of course, Dan Duquette gets some leeway here given that several of last year's pickups seemed unimportant until they became very important).

Ordinarily, a team that plays surprisingly well then stands pat like Baltimore did is headed for a big-time regression.

But, of course, that doesn't have to be the case.

No, they won't be as good in one-run games, but perhaps healthy seasons from Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold and Brian Roberts will mean more two- and three-run leads in the late innings. Perhaps a full season of Manny Machado at third base will save a run or two per week. Perhaps the starters who pitched well in the spring but didn't make the rotation will fill in nicely every time someone else's injury or ineffectiveness brings them to Baltimore. Perhaps the bullpen's step back will not be dramatic and the relief corps will remain among the five or six best in baseball.

That's what Orioles fans are banking on, as they look forward to Opening Day with more optimism than they've felt since the Clinton Administration.

The Orioles did nothing to dispel their enthusiasm during spring training, when they played some really good ball, going 19-9 for the second-best exhibition record in the majors, and had excellent competition for spots.

Nationally, in a major departure from the recent past, many of the pundits - the experts - are picking the Orioles to contend or even to win the AL East. ESPN's Buster Olney was one of them, although he picked the Orioles to be historically bad last season so his prognostication skills possibly don't match his reporting and writing skills.

Regardless of what happens over the next six months, right now, excitement is high. It's a shame the Orioles have to open up on Tuesday in Tampa Bay, in the worst stadium in baseball in a region that isn't too into the sport.

But on Friday at Camden Yards, the Orioles will be greeted, cheered and saluted by a Baltimore fan base still coming off the high of a Super Bowl championship with reason to believe they can add a World Series title in the same calendar year.

And in this crazy era, in a season when 88 wins might be enough for a wild-card spot or even a division title, who's to say they're wrong?