It seems hard to believe that the pitchers and catchers report in only 4 days. I don’t know if I’ve even moved on from the ride from last year. That coupled with the Ravens astonishing run has the sports world moving at what seems to be light speed. But still, in only 4 days, the pitchers and catchers will begin their official duties in Sarasota, FL. I say “official” because as it turns out, there is already an extensive list of players training daily at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, featuring a who’s who of your current Orioles and a bevy of minor league players expected to report on the 17th looking to stake their claim to a big league future.
This should be one of the most interesting spring trainings in Orioles history, coming off of the best season in decades. Based on the way that most journalists are talking about the Orioles heading into the season, you may have never known they performed so well the year prior. But they did, and it seems as though Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter have effectively lulled the baseball world to sleep.
“This is a team marked for regression. They have done nothing to improve on their roster from last year, which experienced unsustainable success wholly reliant on multiple statistical aberrations. They played far over their peripherals, and while a captivating story the year before, are a prime candidate for a bottom of the division finish in an AL East that saw all other teams take steps forward.”
That isn’t a quote from one particular source, but rather a collective summary from just about every reputable one. The best-case scenario from most perspectives would be an 85-89-win season with most expecting a .500 (or sub) season from the Baltimore birds. Their reasoning is pretty simple and largely dependent on the teams around them, with many acknowledging this could be the toughest the AL East has been, top to bottom, in years.
The Yankees are still the Yankees, and will continue having the public conscience under their spell for the foreseeable future (despite aging, expensive talent.) The Red Sox have done some of the same, throwing money at aging veterans just months after trading away all of their aging veterans who they threw too much money at. Meanwhile, the Rays have remained the example for organizational efficiency as they acquired a soon-to-be middle-of-the-order outfielder for soon-to-be expensive free agent pitchers.
And everybody’s new favorite team seems to be the Toronto Blue Jays—or Marlins General Manager, Jeffrey Loria’s Salvation Army. Toronto took on around $160 million in committed payroll from the Marlins in their 12-team trade in November that saw the Marlins sell off all of their recently-promised-to-be-Marlins-for-life after their first year in Miami. Well, at least the fish at Marlins Park might finally get some peace and quiet. On top of that, they traded for R.A. Dickey from the Mets, and signed Biogenesis spokesman, Melky Cabrera to a 2-year deal. (Side note: if you felt you were unjustly accused and suspended for PED use in the midst of the best year of your career, and saw your free-agent stock dive by 10’s-of-millions of dollars as a result, wouldn’t you want to reestablish your value in a 1-year contract? Just saying…) At the end of the offseason, the only move of theirs they made that appears to be a sure thing is the knuckleballing wizard, R.A. Dickey. As far as others are concerned, just ask Jerry Buss or Andy Reid how throwing clumps of money and resources at supposed stars works out in the long run…
In short, that is precisely what Dan Duquette and the Orioles front office hasn’t done this offseason. Despite making it publicly known that they would like to add a quality bat to their lineup, they wisely avoided any of the contracts that the qualifying free agents ended up receiving. The best hitter available was undoubtedly Josh Hamilton, who signed for $125 million with the Los Angeles Angels. Perhaps the next best option for the Orioles needs (high OBP, primarily) being Nick Swisher, who signed for $56 million over 4 years with the Cleveland Indians. I don’t know about you, but production aside, I’m certainly not losing any sleep over not seeing Swisher’s dip packed, menacing grin, roaming Camden Yards for some 328 games over the next 4 years. Not to mention that signing any of the available big names would have also meant sacrificing the 24th overall draft choice in June’s upcoming Rule 4 draft.
It is evident the direction that the Orioles are choosing to go with their organization. No matter the amount of money that Peter Angelos brings in annually (or doesn’t, at this point, we the fans know next to nothing) from MASN, the Orioles payroll will never equal those of New York or Los Angeles. Instead, you have seen massive reshuffling and overhaul of developmental positions, and sweeping reform of the minor league structure with a new emphasis on consistent instruction between levels, and cutting-edge technological analysis.
For all of the publicized spending the Orioles didn’t do on free agents, Mark Reynolds or Joe Saunders, they invested a good chunk of change into various minor league depth signings, with more announced by the day. I know it doesn’t seem like the sexy work of perennial contenders, however, those same depth signings produced the likes of Miguel Gonzalez and Nate McLouth last year. Duquette is truly leaving no stone unturned, and if there is the slightest chance that they could help the roster at any point, he will give them a shot. The constant among the signings has been that they retain minor league options, thus giving the organization more flexibility as the season progresses. All of this is done while simultaneously adding quality depth to a minor league system that was as bare as a cupboard could get at the AA and AAA levels when Duquette took over.
The roster that will break camp this March will be essentially the same as the one that made that miraculous run to the postseason the previous year. For all of the talk about the Orioles outperforming every stat traditionally used to predict success, after the all-star break they finished with a 48-28 record, best in the AL behind only the Athletics. And after calling up third base wunderkind Manny Machado on August 9th, they had an MLB league-leading fielding percentage (.990) and the league’s fewest errors (19). And oh, by the way, for all of the talk about run-differential, from August 6th through the end of the season, the Orioles scored 64 more runs than they gave up.
Unless you are ready to declare that Mark Reynolds and Joe Saunders were the key contributors to that 2nd half success, don’t be surprised to see a contending 2013 Baltimore Orioles.
They look to return Chris Tillman, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez to a pitching staff that clinched a wildcard berth. Meanwhile, they have a myriad of talented starters vying for the 5th rotation spot. Of those pitchers, the most notable being the cavalry of years past (Matusz, Arrieta, Britton), as well as the crafty righty Steve Johnson, Japanese import Tsuyoshi Wada, and pending a lengthy physical, former National League All-Star starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens. They also happen to have the best pitching prospect in baseball in Dylan Bundy, with scouts who feel that their #2 prospect, Kevin Gausman is closer than Bundy to contributing in the majors. Needless to say, it will be very interesting to see who stakes claim to the limited spots in both the rotation and the bullpen.
Admittedly, there is minor cause for concern with Chris Davis’ ability to handle the first base job full-time. Yet, Buck Showalter has recently recovered from surgery on his right knee in an effort to increase his mobility to tutor the burly athlete on the finer details of manning 1B (Showalter sports a not-so-shabby career .989 fielding percentage in 235 minor league games at first.) And after combining the input from his sources in Texas with his own unrivaled wisdom, he felt confident enough in Davis’ fielding.
Buck’s confidence is all Orioles fans can ask for. It’s all Orioles fans should need. Buck Showalter has led the Orioles out of the Dark Ages. He inherited a roster that had some talented pieces (credit to Andy McPhail,) and he molded those young men into fiery competitors. The Orioles were no longer going to sit back and get pushed around by the tyrants at the top of the division. Instead, they were told to push back and stand up for the legacy that the Oriole greats had put in place during their rich history.
“I like these young guys who growl at the game.”
Showalter said this in a postgame presser after one of the many fantastic games last year. That quote is one that is especially pertinent to what the Orioles represented last year and are going to have to represent from here on out. I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t ever a time when I feared that the team would grow complacent after their success. And the fact remains that this team is one that is going to have to stay driven and focused in order to mirror their success from last year.
While many will attempt to say that last year was the peak for the core of the Orioles, from afar, you get the sense the players themselves feel as though they are just scratching the surface. A lot of these players were cast away at points during their careers, only to find a home in Baltimore. They have a collective chip on their shoulder to prove everybody wrong who said they couldn’t hack it in the majors. Clearly, with the amount of players already putting in time down in Sarasota, they are not shying away from the necessary work.
The culture of baseball in Baltimore is changing for the better. The glimpses of a packed Camden Yards were heartwarming to a fan that has watched far too many games with empty green seats available by the bushel. Baltimore is a football town now, and that isn’t hard to see. But we saw briefly what kind of baseball city we are capable of being, and the players saw too.
The new moon has risen in Baltimore, and thanks to Buck Showalter, the Orioles are growling.