The Baltimore Orioles got a rare glimpse of a playoff-like atmosphere last September, but they'll be a longshot to experience that atmosphere for real come this October.
Despite finishing 28 games out of first place in the division, the Orioles found themselves in the thick of the American League playoff race on the final night of the regular season. Trailing Boston 3-2 in the ninth inning, they rallied to score two runs, with Robert Andino's walk-off single eliminating the Red Sox from the postseason. Tampa Bay clawed back to defeat the Yankees on the same night to claim the AL Wild Card spot and put the nail in the coffin of the Red Sox' epic September collapse.
Looking ahead, Baltimore would like nothing more than to be playing for its own fate this fall. But for that to happen, a whole lot will have to break right. After all, the team has endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, including a last-place finish in each of the last four.
Innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore's Opening Day starter in three of the last four years, was dealt to Colorado in February. In exchange, the O's received starting pitcher Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. The front office also signed a ton of guys to minor league contracts and entered camp with 10 players who are out of options. Those players will either make the team or try to latch on somewhere else.
The general hope in Baltimore is that the veterans mesh with the team's young nucleus already in place, leading to an improvement in the win-loss column, and some hope for the future.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Orioles, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (69-93) - Fifth Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Tsuyoshi Wada (SP), Wei-Yin Chen (SP), Wilson Betemit (3b), Endy Chavez (OF), Jason Hammel (SP), Luis Ayala (RP), Matt Lindstrom (RP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jeremy Guthrie (SP), Vladimir Guerrero (DH), Luke Scott (1b)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Endy Chavez (LF); J.J. Hardy (SS); Nick Markakis (RF); Matt Wieters (C); Adam Jones (CF); Mark Reynolds (3b); Chris Davis (1b); Wilson Betemit (DH); Robert Andino (2b)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jake Arrieta (RHP); Brian Matusz (LHP); Tommy Hunter (RHP); Tsuyoshi Wada (LHP); Wei-Yin Chin (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jim Johnson (RHP)
MANAGER: Buck Showalter
SORTING OUT THE ROTATION
Entering spring training, the battle for the five slots in the starting rotation resembled the first few confusing yards after a toll booth; a bunch of cars trying to merge into a few unmarked lanes. But by the end of the spring, the team hopes, those cars will settle nicely in between the painted lines, with five strong hurlers left standing.
Among those competing are Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton, each of whom began last season in the starting rotation. All three had their 2011 seasons cut short due to injury and now find themselves battling for a spot. Britton faces an especially tough road, having been hampered by left shoulder inflammation and recently undergoing platelet rich plasma therapy -- a six- week process or more, according to Dr. James Andrews.
"Last year there was more of a competition for the back end," Britton said at the start of camp. "Now you've got 12, 13 guys battling for five spots, so it should be really interesting."
Indeed, many joined the fray, although the number of candidates has been dwindling a bit. Dana Eveland, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen appear to have been weeded out. Right-hander Alfredo Simon is one of the many players out of options, and a groin injury in his second Grapefruit League start may cost him a spot in the rotation, and the roster altogether if manager Buck Showalter decides against using him in relief.
Others still in the mix include Hammel and Tommy Hunter, along with international signees Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen. Chen has attracted a swoon of Taiwanese reporters everywhere he goes, and the organization hopes he attracts a similar following from his native country.
The myriad questions surrounding the starting rotation won't exactly comfort a fan base that watched its pitching staff assemble a Major League-worst 4.89 ERA a year ago. But with each pitcher having plenty to prove, the hope is that at least one or two uses that motivation to develop into front-line starters.
WHAT WILL DETERMINE A SUCCESSFUL SEASON?
Playing in a division with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, that is the annual question facing this team. A good start would be leapfrogging Toronto to get out of the American League East cellar, as the Blue Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East last season with an 81-81 record. To do so, Baltimore would need to find a way to close the 12-game gap that separated the two teams a year ago.
According to Dan Duquette, who was hired in November to replace Andy MacPhail as executive vice president of baseball operations, getting over the .500 hump would be his definition of a successful season.
"We'd like nothing better than having a winning team. That's our goal," Duquette told the Washington Post.
A winning record would also put the team in position to move ahead of Toronto, assuming of course the Blue Jays finish somewhere around where they did last year. Still, notching more wins than losses is one thing. Establishing a foundation upon which to build is another. In any case, there is no shortage of optimism throughout the clubhouse, with Matusz even going so far as to say he "almost gets chills thinking about what we have in front of us, the opportunity."
"I'm not saying we're going to do this or do that, but we're going to have a better year than last year," center fielder Adam Jones said. "We've got a group of hungry guys, hungry pitchers who want to prove themselves, and we've got the manager who knows how to get the most of the guys. Let's go out there and put this team to a test. I'll put this team against anybody."
WILL THE TEAM'S CORE YOUNG PLAYERS CONTINUE THEIR ASCENSION?
At the core of roster is a handful of key young players entering their prime years, specifically, catcher Matt Wieters (age 25) and outfielders Nick Markakis (28) and Adam Jones (26). For the Orioles to take that next step forward, those players have to continue along their current paths.
The switch-hitting Wieters clubbed 12 home runs over the final two months of the 2011 season, and he blasted left-handed pitching all year long (.339/.430/.694). Jones hit at a .280 clip for a second straight season and posted career-highs in home runs (25), RBI (83) and slugging percentage (.466). Markakis, a Gold Glover last year, is a career .295 hitter across six seasons in the majors and has a couple of 100-plus RBI campaigns under his belt.
Obviously, health will be critical. Markakis hopes to be ready for opening day as he continues his recovery from offseason abdominal surgery. He has never spent time on the disabled list during his Major League career. Should Markakis end up missing time, it would put more pressure on guys like 28-year- old third baseman Mark Reynolds to produce runs. Reynolds has averaged 38 home runs over the last three seasons, although he has hit just .228 over the same span and struck out 196 times last year.
X-FACTOR: DAN DUQUETTE, GENERAL MANAGER
The team believes hiring Duquette was a step in the right direction, as he had previously spent eight seasons in the Montreal Expos' front office and was the Red Sox' general manager from 1994-2001. But it was also a bold move, considering he had been out of baseball for the past nine years and wasn't actually the first choice. Back in November, the team extended an offer to Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava, who ultimately decided it wasn't his dream job and opted instead to stay with Toronto.
In any case, two things Duquette was able to accomplish in both of his previous stops in Montreal and Boston was generate more fan interest and help build the farm system. To try and expand fan interest, and improve upon last year's dreadful pitching staff, Duquette went out and signed Chen, the organization's first Taiwanese player, and Wada, who was successful in Japan (107-61, 3.13 ERA). While those two stand to potentially attract an international market, they'll make Orioles fans happy if they can simply get guys out.
In addition, it remains to be seen whether notoriously meddling owner Peter Angelos will loosen the reins enough for Duquette to make his mark. During the team's 14-year losing stretch, one constant has been Angelos' involvement in baseball decisions. But while Baltimore's GM vacancy may not have had the most sought-after candidates lining up around the corner, Duquette saw an opportunity to try and turn around one of baseball's most storied organizations.
With so many questions, particularly around the starting rotation, Baltimore faces an uphill battle to avoid a fifth straight last-place finish, let alone wedge itself into the playoff picture. The team has a new GM, although the roster moves so far haven't exactly caused mass hysteria amongst O's fans.
Endy Chavez is an established veteran who could take over in left field, while fellow newcomer Wilson Betemit was signed to get on base (.343 OBP in 2011) and hit right-handers (.303 BA in 2011). Guthrie never quite developed into a front-end starter, prompting his departure, and the team is hoping Hammel's numbers improve now that he is out of hitter-friendly Coors Field. The other part of that trade, Lindstrom, figures to help shore up the back end of the bullpen.
If reliever Jim "Nails" Johnson can get past the back problems that plagued him early in the spring, many in the organization feel he has the stuff to close games. As opening day nears, his health is among quite a few injury concerns. One-time leadoff hitter Brian Roberts has had his career sidetracked by concussion problems over the past two seasons, and he has not played in a big league game since May 16 of last year.
Injuries and uncertainty aside, this season marks the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards, with the team even bringing back the retro cartoon bird logo on the hats. And for the first time since 1992, the O's will wear orange jerseys for select home games. The nostalgia presents a nice change, and a cool way for the fans to reconnect with the past. However, it also serves as a reminder of much better times for the organization, when Cal Ripken, Jr. was King and the ballpark was sold out on a daily basis.
A return to those times is unlikely this season, but there is hope for the future. Granted, that future may still be a few years away, like when 19-year- old Dylan Bundy, the 2011 No. 4 overall draft pick, is ready to make his way onto the scene.