Pessimism starts to steal home for Orioles fans

March 14, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles have reached the midway point in spring training, which is usually about the time every March that perception collides with reality.

In this case, there is the public perception that the Orioles are in crisis. Brian Roberts still hasn't made his first exhibition appearance - and probably won't for at least another week. New pitching ace Kevin Millwood has made two Grapefruit League starts, and his ERA looks like a barometer reading. Nolan Reimold is back playing regularly, but his surgically repaired ankle is not yet 100 percent.

And then there's the fact that the team has won just one game since that uplifting six-homer performance in the exhibition opener.

Panic time?

Depends on who you are. If you're a fan and you've been around for all of the Orioles' 12 straight losing seasons, it certainly looks like more of the same. The guarded optimism of the early weeks of camp has been replaced by the unbridled skepticism that comes with the long-barren territory.

If you're manager Dave Trembley or president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, the reality isn't quite so disturbing. It's not like this is their first rodeo.

"What you do is trust the guys who have been down this road before and trust that they know what they need to do to get ready," Trembley said. "The goal is to peak at the right time."

Of course, he has to say that kind of stuff while Millwood is getting scorched and new closer Mike Gonzalez is taking his time getting up to speed, but it really is the right thing to say at this point. The Orioles have played only about a third of their exhibition schedule, so it's a little early to try to attach any real significance to the spring performance of the club - for better or worse.

"I don't tend to read too much into this," MacPhail said. "When I was assistant general manager with the Houston Astros, I used to watch Nolan Ryan get hammered every spring.

"The old adage is, you have to be careful about making judgments in September or March, and that applies to both the good and the bad. I've just been through too many of these."

The fans are understandably gun-shy, but there will be plenty of time for recriminations if the real season turns sour in a similar hurry.

It's fair, however, to consider the uncertain Roberts situation an important bellwether for the club's prospects of getting off to a respectable start. He arrived at training camp with the troubling news that he had suffered a herniated disk in his lower back during offseason conditioning, and his rehabilitation program had to be suspended for several days last week after he came down with either the stomach flu or a reaction to his anti-inflammatory medication.

The Orioles continue to project him as the Opening Day starter at second base, but they just announced another delay in his rehab program and they quietly have begun to prepare for other possibilities.

"What helps us with the Roberts situation, he doesn't need that many [spring] at-bats," Trembley said. "He can get 25 or 30 at-bats. If we need to get him some more, we can lead him off in the first, third and fifth innings of some camp games on the back fields. We can catch up.

"He's going to be the Opening Day second baseman on this club, for my money. He's got to get healthy first, and that's what we're doing."

The Roberts situation aside, club officials are fairly satisfied with the progress that the rest of the team has made during the first 3 1/2 weeks of training camp. Millwood hasn't looked good yet and Jeremy Guthrie got knocked around Saturday by the New York Yankees, but the rest of the healthy members of the projected starting rotation are throwing well and Brad Bergesen looked comfortable in his first exhibition appearance Wednesday night.

The bullpen has provided the only real competition in camp so far, and that has gone very well - well enough, in fact, that the Orioles might have enough of a surplus to make a late-spring deal to upgrade the club in another area.

Still, it would be nice if the fans could see more in the way of on-field results. The Orioles hit a bunch of home runs during their first few exhibition games, but they have not yet clicked offensively. That's partly because Trembley played the regulars on an every-other-day basis for the first week of the exhibition season. It's also because the club's chief offensive catalyst - Roberts - isn't in the lineup.

MacPhail even seemed a little impatient during the club's recent six-game losing streak, but he knows better than to give too much weight to a Grapefruit League won-lost record, especially this early in the exhibition season.

"I'd rather be 7-2 than 2-7," he said Friday, "but if we were 7-2, I don't think anybody would be anointing us American League champions."

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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