Optimism for Orioles should be tempered

Spring roster has potential, but there are some caveats, too

February 14, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

It's probably fair to cast the Orioles' spring roster situation as a big improvement over last year, if only because the team opened training camp last February with so many fringe pitchers that some of them had to warm up on the extra runway at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., municipal airport.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. That part of the old Fort Lauderdale Stadium complex just looked like the back lot of the adjacent airstrip, but there were 37 pitchers in camp and still only faint hope that 12 or 13 of them would be ready to compete in the American League East.

This year's spring roster obviously is a lot more coherent, and projecting who will be the 25 players who open the season with the big league club will be a lot easier. The O's are clearly improved - how could they not be after winning just 64 games in 2009 - and they will open camp with only a handful of major league jobs up for grabs.

So, why are you starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that I'm just setting you up for the bad news?

Probably just all that well-earned cynicism that has been building up over the past 12 years.

The only caveat I'd like to offer about this year's streamlined roster - other than the obvious competitive deficit in the AL East - is that this kind of roster certainty can be either a blessing or a curse.

Manager Dave Trembley has every right to point to the emergence of several promising young players last year and the free-agent upgrades this winter as the reason he shouldn't have much trouble deciding who will come north with the major league club in early April. It's a lot easier to project what a Kevin Millwood will do than dream of what a Rich Hill might.

There are always variables in the spring, of course, so not every player who is projected as a meaningful part of the major league team is going to end up in that particular slot, but it's got to be nice for Trembley to open pitcher and catcher workouts at the new (to the O's) Sarasota facility this week knowing he's only got to decide on a backup catcher, monitor Brad Bergesen's Oscar-winning shoulder injury and fill a couple of middle-relief roles.

Even those few roster decisions don't appear to be all that difficult, so what's the downside?

If this year's seemingly set roster begins to unravel - either during spring training or early in the season - Trembley and the Orioles front office might pine for the halcyon days of 2009 when they could placate impatient fans with the intermittent arrival of top prospects Nolan Reimold, Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz.

There still are some promising players waiting in the wings, but it won't be the same if the Orioles have to rush Josh Bell or Brandon Snyder because the free-agent wheels start to come off, or - worse - have to dip back into the minor leagues because one or more of the young pitchers takes a sophomore step backward.

Maybe none of those will happen. Maybe Garrett Atkins will have a big bounce-back season and Miguel Tejada will have just the right impact on the club's offensive chemistry. Maybe Millwood and Mike Gonzalez will stabilize the pitching staff, and maybe most or all of the young players will continue last year's growth spurt.

If all goes well, Trembley can go merrily about the business of choosing between the same righty or lefty lineup card every day and the Orioles might actually show the collective progress that Andy MacPhail has been talking about all winter.

If not, the supposed beauty of that stable roster could soon give way to the ugly prospect of another season where hope and progress melt away a lot faster than that stuff that's blocking your driveway.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.


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