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Orioles fans' grounds for optimism

Young core has experience at competing in the tough AL East

April 06, 2010|By Dan Connolly | dan.connolly@baltsun.com

"I think it's a great mix," said Wieters, who was recently highlighted in a Sports Illustrated cover story as the prototypical young catcher. "To be able to add guys like Tejada and Millwood and Gonzalez, Tejada does a great job keeping the clubhouse light and Millwood is going to be really good for the young pitchers as well as myself. I think it is a good mix this year and we can definitely learn and improve together."

The Orioles have attempted the youth-veteran combo in the past. But the young guys weren't ballyhooed industrywide, and the veterans were locked in with unmovable contracts.

"Since I've been here, I think it's the best combination," said Johnson, an Oriole since 2006. "In years past, we had guys that were here that were filling spots instead of earning spots. There are a lot of guys that really stepped up this year to stake a claim."

The talent might be elevated, but the obstacles are the same. The Orioles play 54 of their 162 games against the Boston Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees, the past three American League representatives in the World Series. The Orioles were 15-39 in those contests in 2009.

Despite the improvements the team has made, baseball pundits largely view the Orioles as unready to compete with their top three division rivals.

"I think the Orioles' offseason has set them up for a year of patience and watching guys get better," said Kevin Goldstein, national writer for Baseball Prospectus. "This is not their year. I think 2011 is the time for the Orioles to get taken seriously."

The Orioles' early-season schedule is particularly brutal. They play 16 straight days to start the season without a break, including a seven-game swing to the West Coast. After their first day off April 22, the Orioles face the Red Sox and Yankees in 12 consecutive games.

That reality must be balanced against what MacPhail says "is the most talented team that I've broken camp with since I've been in Baltimore. It's a younger team in a lot of respects, and I think those things are encouraging."

Whether Orioles fans are encouraged, or have become resigned to mediocrity to such an extent that any sign would be encouraging, is perhaps the biggest mystery of 2010.

"As a true fan, the thing I want to see most is a real step forward," said Orioles fan Ben Schmitz of South Baltimore.

"Maybe challenge for third in the division, see an improvement in the base running, and see the young guys improve throughout the season. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe they do even better than expected. Why not?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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