An active offseason has both Birdland and the baseball world chirping about the possibility of a winning season for the Orioles. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail brought in a bunch of name players this winter who bring skills, credibility and, hopefully, production to the Orioles.
Yes, people are talking about the Orioles again. They are curious to see how much Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee have left to give. They are wondering how Mark Reynolds will fare in the AL East. And some are suggesting that the Orioles might actually have a decent shortstop in J.J. Hardy. The consensus is that the Orioles can compete, and it appears to be more than the usual Opening Day optimism when it comes to hyping up the team's chances.
MacPhail did his job this offseason and he deserves his due, but I'm surprised how much we are all raving about the new guys and how little we are discussing the Orioles' much-ballyhooed young players.
Brian Matusz. Matt Wieters. Jake Arrieta. Adam Jones. Chris Tillman. Brad Bergesen. Those are the Orioles we should be getting fired up about. They're not the future anymore. They're the present.
Whether MacPhail made all the right moves this offseason or not -- and not everyone is sold -- it's up to the youngsters to take big leaps forward in their development and carry the Orioles towards the playoffs. If they don't, it won't matter if Guerrero really is Superman or if Reynolds wages war on the Warehouse or if Justin Duchscherer pitches well enough for me to learn how to spell his name without Google's help.
Sure, I'm excited to see how the new guys fare in orange and black. But seeing which of the Orioles' talented twenty-somethings develop into stars under Buck Showalter will be much more compelling. And if the baby Birds become winners after years of waiting, it will be a rewarding experience for fans who stuck it out.
It will have to start with the pitching, and that is by design.
MacPhail's mantra while rebuilding the organization the past few years has been "grow the arms and buy the bats," and that was the smart way for the Orioles to go about their business in the AL East. The problem is that if the current crop of young starters doesn't grow as hoped, the Orioles will have to start the process all over again. I'm not sure fans will have the patience for that.
The good news is that Matusz, Arrieta and Bergesen showed glimpses of greatness after Showalter took over as manager last August. Matusz had an ERA under 2.20 over the final two months of 2010. Arrieta went 3-3 with a 3.80 ERA from August on. Bergesen posted a 3.94 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in the season's second half. Chris Tillman? Not so much. But the talent is there if he can harness it.
And let's not forget about lefty starter Zach Britton, the organization's top prospect.
Those five pitchers are battling it out in Sarasota for three spots in the rotation (assuming Duchscherer can make it to Opening Day), but chances are we'll see each of them at some point this season trying to prove wrong the critics who say the Orioles don't yet have the pitching to compete in the AL East.
Meanwhile, Wieters and Jones are now somehow flying under the radar -- many are penciling them into the bottom third of the lineup -- which can only be a good thing. Early in the 2010 season, they seemed to struggle in the batter's box as if the weight of the city's expectations was draped on their shoulders. There is no longer the pressure for them to carry the team themselves, and I think they are both poised for breakout seasons.
If these young guys take off this season and the Orioles remain relevant past the start of Ravens training camp -- the Orioles might get more time to work with this summer thanks to the CBA brouhaha -- we will all be applauding MacPhail for surrounding them with the likes of Guerrero, Reynolds and company.
But if some of them don't step towards stardom, the Orioles' offseason upgrades will have gone to waste.