SARASOTA, FLA. — What president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail billed as "Phase Two" of the organization's rebuilding process begins Tuesday night as the Orioles open the 2010 season against the Tampa Bay Rays with cautious optimism.
"This is the third time that I will break with an Oriole team and I think this is clearly the most talented team going north," MacPhail said. "I have no reservations saying that."
What MacPhail won't predict is how that will translate in the standings and on the team's winloss record. In a season where manager Dave Trembley will be judged by results, the Orioles face numerous obstacles back to respectability, and some are beyond their control.
Their early-season schedule is arguably the toughest in the American League and they'll have to navigate it with two of their better offensive players from 2009 second baseman Brian Roberts and left fielder Nolan Reimold slowed by injuries that could linger for much of the year.
With Roberts missing most of Grapefruit League play because of a herniated disk in the back, the offense never got on track, one of several ominous signs that cropped up this spring. The infield defense remains a work in progress with Miguel Tejada making the transition from shortstop to third base and Garrett Atkins becoming a full-time first baseman for the first time in his career.
The bullpen, expected to be one of the team's strengths, was mired by injuries and ineffectiveness, and is now one of the Orioles' biggest question marks. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie, the two veterans asked to lead a young rotation, struggled to consistently get hitters out.
"We've had some guys that have had disappointing springs, but you just never know what sticks once the bell rings," MacPhail said. "Experience will tell you that spring training is not often the barometer of spring training performance."
Roberts, who got just 19 at-bats this spring, said that he saw nothing over the previous five weeks to discourage him from the belief that the Orioles are in better position to compete than they've been in for several years.
"I don't think anything that happened in spring training would have changed that unless we lost two guys to injuries for the whole year," said Roberts. "I think we feel pretty good about where we are."
The 2010 Orioles will certainly be put to the test early. Of their first 35 games, 28 of them are against teams with winning records last year, 20 will be played on the road, and 21 will be against divisional foes. Starting Tuesday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Trembley's team will play for 16 consecutive days, including embarking on a West Coast trip the second week of the season.
Following their first off day on April 22, they play 12 straight games against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, teams they went a combined 7-29 against last season.
"It wouldn't have been the way I'd have drawn it up, but it is what it is," MacPhail said. "You learn in this sport that there are things you can complain about that are worth your time and energy and there are other things that you can complain about that aren't worth your time and energy. Complaining about the schedule is a waste of energy."
MacPhail is just as concerned with how the Orioles finish as how they start. The organization has had only one winning August or September since 2000 as late-season collapses have become an annual rite of summer at Camden Yards. Last season, they went a combined 20-40 in August and September/October en route to a 64-98 campaign.
"You can't collapse like we have the last two years," said MacPhail when asked what he would consider progress. "We have to show a little more depth as an organization and compete better than we did in the latter part of the last two years. And like everything else, I think that if there's progress, you know it when you see it. I don't necessarily know that there's a magic number [with the wins]. The more the better."
After MacPhail picked up Trembley's 2010 option late last season, he declared that the manager would be judged by wins and losses going forward, and asked him to focus on several aspects of the game that have plagued the Orioles the past couple of years.
This spring, Trembley started several workouts with baserunning drills. The team regularly took infield practice before home games, and pitchers went through tedious drills on fielding their position and holding baserunners on a daily basis.
Without a legitimate 35-plus homer guy in the middle of the lineup and a potential 20-win ace at the top of the rotation, Trembley said that "we have to be the team that is very good at making the fundamental plays, being smart on the bases, hitting the cutoff man, being able to move runners, being able to make productive outs." But Trembley also acknowledged that the team's success will come down to one factor.