Orioles' spring paradox: equal parts hope, fear

March 27, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — There is something about spring training that always brings out the irrational optimist in me.

I watch Brian Matusz beguile Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday on Wednesday afternoon and imagine him polishing his 2010 American League Rookie of the Year Award.

I see Brad Bergesen pitch 5 2/3 innings of three-hit ball against the New York Yankees on Thursday and wonder why anybody was ever worried about his banged-up shin or his Screen Actors Guild shoulder injury.

Every time I see Adam Jones track a fly ball or streak from first to third, I see a young Eric Davis, and if you remember Eric from his career in Cincinnati or his inspiring time in Baltimore, you know that's high praise.

It's just the nature of spring training to see things as they should be and not necessarily as they really are.

But when I step back from this reverie, I'm reminded of what former Ravens coach Brian Billick liked to say about judging players during the NFL combine or during offseason OTAs.

"Never fall in love with a guy in shorts."

Now, that's pretty sound advice under any circumstances, but it loosely applies here. The Orioles have a lot of attractive young players. They've got more legit young talent than at any time in the past 20 years. It's OK to imagine all those young players blooming this year or next and turning the O's into contenders in the American League East - as long as you don't lose touch with reality.

For me, the latest reality check came Thursday when the Yankees team bus pulled up behind the left-field fence at Ed Smith Stadium.

It'll come again today when the Boston Red Sox visit Sarasota, probably with a pretty representative travel roster at this late stage in spring training.

Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira strutted in from the outfield parking lot, and - as much as we all hate to say it - you could almost smell the superiority. They got spanked, 8-0, which was satisfying in a largely ephemeral sense, but you know you can't extrapolate that into the regular season.

The Red Sox will arrive today to show off their newest big-dollar pitching acquisition. Former Los Angeles Angels ace John Lackey will take the mound against O's fifth-starter candidate David Hernandez. They also have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in that rotation, which illustrates the clear difference between a known quantity and what the Orioles have: a rotation held together largely by hope and promise.

There's nothing wrong with hope and promise, of course. Both are reasons to pay attention this year and feel positive about the long-term future of the franchise. They just aren't a substitute for proven excellence, especially in a division in which the economic inequities of the industry are so pronounced.

You also have to take into account something that no one in Baltimore wants to think about. The Yankees and Red Sox - and the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, for that matter - also have great young talent waiting to pop. It's not just a matter of waiting everybody else out.

Not-so-fun fact: The Rays' minor league system is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, and the Red Sox's system is ranked No. 6, three slots ahead of the Orioles'.

That's why it was disappointing to hear from players union director Michael Weiner the other day that realignment is not a front-burner issue right now, since there were rumblings coming out of the ownership side that it will be under consideration by Bud Selig's new committee examining the game. The mountain might be too high no matter how well the Orioles rebound from their 12 seasons in the desert, but that's a subject for another day.

The question at hand is whether the Orioles have positioned themselves this spring to take a significant competitive step forward. My heart says they have, especially now that Brian Roberts is back, but my head is not so sure.

ESPN's Buster Olney, who used to cover the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun, has been saying that the O's have had one of the worst springs of any major league team. I don't know if that's true, but it certainly hasn't been a barrel of laughs with Roberts sidelined for most of it and No. 1 starter Kevin Millwood largely being kept out of sight.

Opening Day is 10 days away, and I'm looking forward to it with both anticipation and apprehension.

I'm guessing you are, too.

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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