Three key returns offer promise as Orioles open spring training

The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — Under the bright Florida sun on Tuesday afternoon, Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold took his first swings against a pitcher since last April. Left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada tested his surgically repaired left-elbow with a long-toss session that is part of a tedious throwing progression to strengthen his arm.

Both Reimold and Wada were expected to be key parts of the Orioles' 2012 season until injuries set them back. Turn the page to the start of spring training, a time full of anticipation for every baseball fan, and they're reason to believe in the future.

Orioles pitchers and catchers reported to the Ed Smith Stadium complex Tuesday for the official beginning of spring training. A bevy of position players — including cornerstone players like center fielder Adam Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Manny Machado — joined them a full four days before the team's first full-squad workout.

While the Orioles didn't light up the hot stove much this offseason, they are confident that the existing core of players, buoyed by the expected return of key contributors like Reimold, Wada and second baseman Brian Roberts, can help sustain their sudden success of 2012.

After 14 losing seasons, the Orioles triumphantly returned to the postseason last season, beat the Texas Rangers in the American League wild-card game and took the New York Yankees to a decisive Game 5 in the AL Division Series.

"Our guys are going to turn the page like they did all last year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We want these to be the good old days."

When his full squad reports to camp, Showalter will have a message for his team on the dry erase board in the team's main conference room: Be better than the other four teams in the heavyweight American League East.

"When it's all said and done, we need to find a way to be better than four teams initially and that's what's up on our board," he said. "We meet every morning. The players will see it. We've got to figure out a way to be better than these four teams. It's understanding the challenge that's going to be ahead of us. God knows we play them enough times. It's about being better than those four teams and it's going to be a challenge like it always is."

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who built the Orioles into a 93-win team in his first season in Baltimore, called the division "a tough playground" on Tuesday. Combining the Toronto Blue Jays' offseason improvement with the now annual threat of the Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, the division could be as tough as ever.

Duquette, however, is confident.

"It's a dogfight," Duquette said. "But I like the returning nucleus of our ballclub. Our bullpen is back and that was one of the strengths of the team, and I like some of our young pitching to really come forward and establish themselves this season."

Nearly a dozen candidates will compete for rotation spots, including Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter, who both thrived as relievers late in the season. Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen appear to be locks, and Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman are strong bets barring serious setbacks. The Orioles hopes to find a spot for Rule 5 pick T.J, McFarland, and they have flexibility with some pitchers — Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Steve Johnson included — who could be sent to the minors for fine tuning.

"It's going to be intriguing to see how it plays out, but we're also keeping that maneuverability," Showalter said. "We're not going to penalize people. We're not going to penalize a guy and send him to Triple-A because he's got an option. If he has that type of year, we'll figure it out. I think our guys understand that we're going to take the best 25."

And the Orioles hope to be able to depend on contributions from the players who didn't play a big part in last year's magical run — players like Roberts, Wada and Reimold. Their returns could almost serve as key offseason acquisitions.

Roberts, in the final season of a four-year, $40-million contract, hasn't played in more than 59 games since 2009 because of various injuries. The Orioles have replacements at second base in Alexi Casilla and Ryan Flaherty, but Roberts has been training in Sarasota and has participated in all baseball activities while recovering from offseason hip and sports hernia surgeries.

Wada, the Japanese left-hander who signed a two-year, $8.15 million contract last offseason, could return from Tommy John surgery as early as May. Shut down during last year's spring training, the highlight of his major league career is two solid relief innings in a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves at Disney World.

And then there's Reimold, who carried the Orioles for the first two weeks of the season before suffering a season-ending herniated disk in his neck making a diving catch into the stands in Chicago. He had a line of .313/.333/.627 with five homers and 10 RBIs through 16 games.

Reimold isn't guaranteed a starting spot this season. The Orioles re-signed Nate McLouth, who patrolled in left field in his absence last season. Showalter said he knows Reimold feels like a forgotten man, but said he likes that "edge" he sees in him. (Players weren't made available to speak to reporters Tuesday.)

It's the same edge — the same chip on the shoulder — the Orioles aim to maintain in sustaining their 2012 success.

"Our guys in that locker room at Yankee Stadium that night were not happy," Showalter said of the team's season-ending loss in New York. "That's one thing I was looking for. They weren't like, well, we had a nice season. We got better and whatever. These guys they want to attack those things. They know what's not going to play over the long haul."

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