Orioles manager Buck Showalter will take part in his second FanFest on Saturday, and he will be one of the first to say there's not as much buzz around the team's expectations as there was a year ago heading into the unofficial kickoff to the season.
This time last year, the Orioles were coming off a 34-23 finish under Showalter. The team made moves that, while not flashy, were substantial, strengthening its lineup with the offseason acquisitions of shortstop J.J. Hardyand third baseman Mark Reynolds, and there was excitement to see how the club's stable of young, unproven pitchers would test in the American League East. The Orioles were also beginning to toy with the idea of adding veteran slugger Vladimir Guerrero.
Contrast that to now. The team has a restructured front office full of new faces, most notably executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. While Hardy, Reynolds, center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters made strides at the plate last season, the pitching failed to live up to expectations. And aside from a three-win improvement over 2010 — and a tremendous win in game No. 162 to help eliminate the Boston Red Sox from playoff contention — fans were left to ponder a 14th consecutive losing season.
"There's something to be said about being a little bit under the radar," Showalter said this week. "It doesn't lessen our expectations to improve our win-loss record like we have the last two years. The increments aren't what [the fans] hoped, but they are there. I think our depth and our minor league development is something we need to keep our attention on. I like some of the things Dan's done internationally and a lot of the people we've added to the mix."
Orioles fans will still come en masse to the Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday. The autograph lines will still snake around the floor as fans interact with players. The carnival atmosphere — complete with black and orange balloons — will create anticipation for the first day of pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 18.
But the optimism? It wavers.
Rosedale resident David Hill, who will attend FanFest, says he downloaded the Orioles' season-finale win over Boston from iTunes.
"I did it to keep my spirits up," said Hill, 25. "I always have optimism. That's what you do with the hometown team. This year compared to last year, not so much. The way the season ended last year, you can't beat that. There are a few concerns, but I think we can overcome those concerns with the pitching coming around. I think the momentum will swing upward."
Albert Lang, a lifelong Orioles fan from Washington, echoed those sentiments.
"I think there was hope last year in that the Orioles were on the right way to possibly being competitive," Lang said. "This year, I think it's been set back a little bit. It's definitely not as happy or exciting as last season was. It makes you a little tougher to follow them on a day in, day out basis, but I'm not leaving them anytime soon."
Duquette, who will have his first official introduction to the fans Saturday at the event's fan forum, has been busy this offseason, especially in drawing talent from the international market, signing Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and fellow left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada from Japan's top professional league. Shoring up the organization's starting pitching has been his top priority, and he has added positional depth as well.
"This year, you really don't know about any of these guys other than [outfielder] Endy Chavez," said Eric Karkovack, 29, of Carlisle, Pa. "The guys they've gotten from Asia seem to be talented, but you just really don't know what they're going to do. I think just because of how many years of losing [the Orioles have] had, you'd just like to see them go out and get somebody who has a big name and who can draw people to the stadium and just bring a little bit of excitement.
"I like Dan Duquette," Karkovack added. "He's a smart guy. It's just tough when you just think it's going to be another three- to five-year plan process like there was under [Andy] MacPhail."
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Though Duquette has said he wants this year's team to be a .500 club, he has also acknowledged the Orioles aren't there yet and are still working to improve the team in the remainder of the offseason. He has spoken at length about the Orioles' passionate fan base and understands its hunger for a winner.
And maybe Duquette has a surprise. In the past, Orioles have used FanFest to announce player moves — like two years ago, when the team announced Miguel Tejada's return to Baltimore.
Across the street from the Convention Center at Camden Yards, more than a dozen players have participated in a three-day minicamp, which makes Showalter excited for the season.
"I'm always cup half-full," Showalter said. "We know the realities of the season, but I kind of like where we are from a mental standpoint within the club, within the organization, trying to stay under the radar a little bit. We just don't want to get too far under there, right?
"Everyone talks about the [AL East]. It's like when people talk about the SEC [in football]. Yeah, they're good, so play better. It's like in golf. I've never understood the handicap system in golf. Figure that out. Last time I looked, they didn't give you three runs before you play the game."