As familiar doubts about the Orioles return, so do the reasons for optimism

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, right, and his staff field questions at Fanfest at Baltimore Convention Center.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, right, and his staff field questions at Fanfest at Baltimore Convention Center. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

It's time to jump in the Hot Tub Time Machine and go back exactly one year for a little spring training perspective.

The Orioles were in camp by now, and the narrative about their offseason and prospects for a playoff run — minus the Dan Duquette fiasco — was surprisingly similar to that which surrounds the organization as it prepares to welcome pitchers and catchers to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday.


It is, for lack of a less belabored Yogi Berra-ism, deja vu all over again.

If you scan the various analytics sites on the Web, you'll find the team that reached the 2014 American League Championship Series getting the same tepid evaluations and facing the same dismal projections it did last year, which I suppose is understandable when you see how little has really changed year over year.


The parallels are fairly obvious. Duquette took a lot of heat last year when he traded away two-time major league saves leader Jim Johnson because the club didn't want to pay him the $10 million or so he would have gotten in salary arbitration, a move that is hard to question after seeing Johnson struggle badly and Zach Britton establish himself as an effective closer.

This year's unsentimental journey took outfielder Nick Markakis, the longest-tenured active Oriole, to Atlanta when the Orioles balked at giving him a four-year deal worth about $10 million annually. It was announced soon after he signed a slightly larger deal with the Braves that Markakis would undergo neck surgery to correct the herniated disk that has hindered him the past couple of seasons. As was the case with Johnson, it'll be a while before we know whether the Orioles made the right call.

They pretty much ignored their own free-agent class last winter, letting Brian Roberts, Jason Hammel and Scott Feldman walk while Duquette padded the 40-man roster with marginal players. The same thing happened this offseason, though the lack of a serious effort to retain club Most Valuable Player Nelson Cruz and premier setup man Andrew Miller figures to be much more significant than last year's losses.

The point here is not to say that this year's team is as good as the team that opened the 2014 regular season, only that the makeup of the team that will open spring training this week is very similar to the one that went through its first workout on Valentine's Day last year.

Of course, that was before Duquette went on a February spending spree that garnered Cruz at a severely discounted price and — less happily, it would turn out — added veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to the starting rotation.

That's why there is some logic to the notion that the Orioles can weather the loss of Cruz and Miller; they are expecting to have catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado back from their season-killing injuries, and they have the same bullpen that was more than adequate before the midseason acquisition of Miller.

The big difference is in the outfield, where Markakis was a fixture and the only thing manager Buck Showalter needed to figure out was how to fill left field. That situation became clearer with the arrival of Cruz, but it never was really settled.

Showalter plugged in seven different outfielders in left field over the course of the season, and might have to do something similar in 2015 unless newly acquired outfielder Travis Snider takes hold of the job in right and doesn't let go.

It's still possible Duquette has a couple of moves left to make. He has a history of making late additions to his spring rosters, but the pool of restricted free agents he tapped last February is all but tapped out this year. He'll have to deal one of his starting pitchers if he wants to acquire a significant player to deepen the outfield or upgrade the team's on-base potential.

Chances are, what you see on the extended roster is what Showalter will have to choose from over the next seven weeks, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The Orioles have a solid rotation, a strong bullpen and a talented offensive nucleus. What they don't have is the margin for error that Cruz provided with his terrific 2014 season.

This year, they'll have to stay healthy and hope slugger Chris Davis can reconnect with his scary 2013 self to stay in contention in the tough AL East … which is exactly what everyone was saying a year ago.


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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