The Baltimore Orioles came back down to earth last year, but they have remained there only long enough to retool their offensive machine and partially rethink a youth-oriented organizational philosophy.
Now, as the club prepares to fly south for the spring, expectations are again on the rise. And, to quote a familiar phrase from a happier time, "Why not?"
The arrival of proven run-producers Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans gives the Orioles offensive potential not seen in these parts since Eddie Murray stalked out of town. The presence of eight viable candidates for the starting rotation leaves the pitching staff functional despite the departure of Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling. If all goes well in Sarasota -- and the 13 other cities the club will visit on the grueling,month-long exhibition trip that begins in early March -- the Orioles will come back to Baltimore a legitimate contender in the American League East.
"We feel we definitely have improved the ballclub," general manager Roland Hemond said, "and we're certainly looking forward to a full spring training."
Last year's preparation time was cut short by baseball's labor impasse, which hurt the Orioles more than some teams because of the number of Baltimore players who were coming back from injuries. This year, the players who are in camp for Friday's opening pitchers/catchers workout at Twin Lakes Park will have 46 days to get ready for Opening Day.
It might seem even longer than that when the club gets into its all-road Grapefruit League schedule, but manager Frank Robinson will need all the time he can get to consider the possibilities presented by his revamped roster.
"I'm excited about it," Robinson said. "This is the best I've felt about a ballclub since I've managed here. Sure, there will be more decisions to make, but not more pressure."
The blockbuster trade for Davis left the Orioles with a roster surplus at first base and Robinson with a variety of possible lineup configurations -- some of them rather unconventional. Will Randy Milligan, who recently established himself as the everyday first baseman, be forced to adapt to the outfield to keep a regular spot in the lineup? Will Davis split time between first base and designated hitter (or perhaps even left field)? Will Evans have to play regularly in the outfield to play regularly at all? Will 46 days be enough time to decide?
Robinson isn't complaining. When he asked for run-production help a year ago, he got Randy Bass and Sam Horn. This year, he got Evans and Davis. Putting together a starting lineup might be more complicated, but it definitely will be more fun.
"There's no doubt about it, we're a much better ballclub than we were at this time last year," Robinson said. "We're much better offensively, which is going to take a lot of pressure off the pitching staff. We're going to score some runs."
Though club officials originally left open the possibility that Davis might spend some time in the outfield, it now seems obvious that it will be Milligan who will have to adapt to a new environment to keep his place in the starting lineup. The Orioles aren't going to pay Davis $3.275 million a year to be a glorified utility man. Milligan probably will work out in left field, though club officials are guessing that he'll end up getting 300-400 at-bats as a designated hitter and giving Davis an occasional day off at first base.
"Overall, we're going to have more competition this year, which leads to the necessity of more spring training," Hemond said. "We're deeper at more positions. It should be interesting, with our infield deeper and Dwight Evans trying to get ready to play the outfield."
Much depends on Evans, who is intent on proving that he can play regularly in right field. He has not made an appearance there since August 1989, thanks to a painful back injury that also has cut deeply into his offensive capability. But his 1990 run-production numbers -- however diminished -- still would have been welcome on the Orioles stat sheet.
If Evans can defy his 39 years and again display his solid defensive skills on a regular basis, Robinson will be in a position ,, to assemble an imposing (albeit predominantly right-handed) batting order. The heart of the lineup likely would feature Cal Ripken batting third, Davis in the cleanup spot, Milligan DHing and hitting fifth, and Evans batting behind him. The presence of left-handed hitters Joe Orsulak, Sam Horn and Brady Anderson figures to give Robinson some flexibility against right-handed pitchers, but not much.
Better left-right balance might be nice, but there were more pressing concerns when the Orioles embarked on their off-season reconstruction project.