With no proof to contray, O's hope springs eternal

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It is a very long season and it would be folly to attach much significance to any single day during the first two weeks of spring training, but I'm going to anyway.

The Orioles beat the Italian national team in a pre-Grapefruit League exhibition game yesterday, which isn't saying a whole lot from a level-of-competition standpoint, but the entire day seemed to be a showcase for the new direction of this long-struggling franchise.

Let's review:

* New left fielder Felix Pie got his passport situation straightened out in the Dominican Republic and reported to camp yesterday morning. He looked in fine shape.

* Left-hander Rich Hill, the other potentially key player the Orioles got in a trade with the Chicago Cubs over the winter, delivered a very encouraging performance during his batting practice session. Reserve catcher Guillermo Quiroz called it "the best left-handed stuff I've ever seen."

* Matt Wieters, who was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America after the 2008 season, was No. 1 on the publication's list of baseball's 100 top prospects for 2009, which was released yesterday.

* The Orioles paraded the cream of their pitching future to the mound against Team Italia, starting with 2008 top draft pick Brian Matusz, and the eight pitchers combined to give up four hits, strike out nine and walk one.

"I think I am as convinced now as I've ever been that this team is going to win with pitching and defense," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "It's a pretty clear path for us, and we've added some pieces that contribute to that philosophy. If this had been a game where there were scouts here, they would have been able to see the direction. It was a good day."

OK, so you're saying it was just the Italian national team and how much can you draw from that? And you're missing the point.

Nobody is saying Matusz, Chris Tillman, Troy Patton and Jake Arrieta are going to form the nucleus of an elite starting rotation in the next year or two, but the fact that the Orioles can trot eight promising young pitchers to the mound in the same game without featuring anyone projected on the Opening Day roster speaks volumes about what MacPhail likes to refer to as "the inventory."

"What you saw out there today, that is a blueprint for the future," manager Dave Trembley said. "Our future is going to be based upon strong starting pitching, the ability to catch the ball up the middle and an everyday player behind the plate, and you know who I'm talking about. Today is a very big day for the direction that this team is going."

Don't misunderstand. We're not breaking out the Kool-Aid here. The positive things that happened yesterday all were indicators of a potentially bright future. The Orioles look like their luck is changing, but it certainly hasn't changed yet.

Pie still has to prove he can be a productive major league hitter. Getting him into camp was just the first step. Hill appears to be responding to the efforts of pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Alan Dunn, but the biggest hurdles are still ahead in his attempt to recover physically and mentally from a disastrous mechanical breakdown.

Even Wieters, the surest of minor league sure things, knows that potential is that thing everybody focuses on before you actually succeed. He seemed fairly nonplussed by the news that he had been rated as the top major league prospect by the bible of minor league baseball. He said it was nice and all, but it was based on last year's performance and it's time to concentrate on this year.

The kid is a realist.

So is MacPhail, who has made a habit of being brutally honest about the shortcomings of the organization and what it might take to correct them.

He said it was a very good day, and until I catch him in a lie, I'll have to take him at his word.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) weeknights at 6.

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