What president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail billed as "Phase Two" of the organization's rebuilding process begins Tuesday night as the Orioles open the 2010 season against the Tampa Bay Rays with cautious optimism.
"This is the third time that I will break with an Oriole team and I think this is clearly the most talented team going north," MacPhail said. "I have no reservations saying that."
What MacPhail won't predict is how that will translate in the standings and on the team's winloss record. In a season where manager Dave Trembley will be judged by results, the Orioles face numerous obstacles back to respectability, and some are beyond their control.
Their early-season schedule is arguably the toughest in the American League and they'll have to navigate it with two of their better offensive players from 2009 ÃÂ second baseman Brian Roberts and left fielder Nolan Reimold ÃÂ slowed by injuries that could linger for much of the year.
With Roberts missing most of Grapefruit League play because of a herniated disk in the back, the offense never got on track, one of several ominous signs that cropped up this spring. The infield defense remains a work in progress with Miguel Tejada making the transition from shortstop to third base and Garrett Atkins becoming a full-time first baseman for the first time in his career.
The bullpen, expected to be one of the team's strengths, was mired by injuries and ineffectiveness, and is now one of the Orioles' biggest question marks. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie, the two veterans asked to lead a young rotation, struggled to consistently get hitters out.
"We've had some guys that have had disappointing springs, but you just never know what sticks once the bell rings," MacPhail said. "Experience will tell you that spring training is not often the barometer of spring training performance."
Roberts, who got just 19 at-bats this spring, said that he saw nothing over the previous five weeks to discourage him from the belief that the Orioles are in better position to compete than they've been in for several years.
"I don't think anything that happened in spring training would have changed that unless we lost two guys to injuries for the whole year," said Roberts. "I think we feel pretty good about where we are."
The 2010 Orioles will certainly be put to the test early. Of their first 35 games, 28 of them are against teams with winning records last year, 20 will be played on the road, and 21 will be against divisional foes. Starting Tuesday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Trembley's team will play for 16 consecutive days, including embarking on a West Coast trip the second week of the season.
"It wouldn't have been the way I'd have drawn it up, but it is what it is," MacPhail said. "You learn in this sport that there are things you can complain about that are worth your time and energy and there are other things that you can complain about that aren't worth your time and energy. Complaining about the schedule is a waste of energy."
MacPhail is just as concerned with how the Orioles finish as how they start. The organization has had only one winning August or September since 2000 as late-season collapses have become an annual rite of summer at Camden Yards. Last season, they went a combined 20-40 in August and September/October en route to a 64-98 campaign.
"You can't collapse like we have the last two years," said MacPhail when asked what he would consider progress. "We have to show a little more depth as an organization and compete better than we did in the latter part of the last two years. And like everything else, I think that if there's progress, you know it when you see it. I don't necessarily know that there's a magic number [with the wins]. The more the better."
After MacPhail picked up Trembley's 2010 option late last season, he declared that the manager would be judged by wins and losses going forward, and asked him to focus on several aspects of the game that have plagued the Orioles the past couple of years.
This spring, Trembley started several workouts with baserunning drills. The team regularly took infield practice before home games, and pitchers went through tedious drills on fielding their position and holding baserunners on a daily basis.
Without a legitimate 35-plus homer guy in the middle of the lineup and a potential 20-win ace at the top of the rotation, Trembley said that "we have to be the team that is very good at making the fundamental plays, being smart on the bases, hitting the cutoff man, being able to move runners, being able to make productive outs." But Trembley also acknowledged that the team's success will come down to one factor.
"I just think it's very apparent that the success of our team will be contingent on how the five guys in the starting rotation perform," he said. "It's about pitching, it's about getting quality outings out of the top five guys on your pitching staff."
Despite Millwood and Guthrie's spring struggles, the Orioles feel better about their Opening Day rotation than they have in several years. Millwood and Guthrie combined to pitch 398 2/3 innings last year, and if nothing else, team officials are confident that they'll log some innings and take pressure off the three youngsters ÃÂ Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez - behind them.
The group certainly pales in comparison to what the Red Sox and Yankees are going to run out, but it is drastically improved from last year when the Opening Day rotation was Guthrie, Koji Uehara, Alfredo Simon, Mark Hendrickson and Adam Eaton. Only Guthrie finished the season in the Orioles rotation.
"I think the guys have a sense that we have a starting rotation that we know we are going to run with and you have [Chris] Tillman and [Jake] Arrieta in the wings," said pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "I think we're a lot stronger there, and the thing is, this rotation needs to start thinking they have to get deeper in games. If they understand that, the bullpen is going to be a heck of a lot better, too."
With Reimold, Adam Jones Felix Pie, Matt Wieters and the group of young pitchers, joining the established Roberts and Nick Markakis, the Orioles feel that they have a better core of talent than they've had in a long time. But their mantra all spring has been transforming individual success into team success.
"We're fed up with losing," said Jones, a Gold Glove center fielder and All-Star last season. "Obviously, that's how everybody is going to be rated this year and they should be. You accept mediocrity and you get mediocrity. I think that Andy has made the moves and he's done a good job in getting a team that he knows will go out there and battle day-in and day-out. That's the kind of team that we have."
With slightly higher expectations, the pressure will largely fall on Trembley's shoulders, and the manager, who is in the final year of his contract, is well aware of what's at stake this season.
"If you don't think about it, you're not telling the truth," Trembley said. "When there are higher expectations placed upon you, it must mean that you're perceived as being better. Now it's up to us to take that perception into reality."