Perhaps more than any other time in the past six years, there is a sense of optimism surrounding the Orioles as they head to spring training.
There are four new starters in the everyday lineup, a deep, revamped bullpen and a rotation filled with young, talented pitchers.
And the group is led by no-nonsense manager Buck Showalter, who directed the club to a 34-23 record after one of the worst four-month stretches in franchise history.
But amidst the good feelings is the sobering truth that the margin for error remains slim for the Orioles if they are to compete with the behemoths of the American League East. Here are 10 questions worth considering as spring training officially begins Monday.
What effect will Vladimir Guerrero have?
The 36-year-old designated hitter with the .320 lifetime batting average automatically becomes the club's most feared hitter. His presence also has created a logjam in left field, with last year's DH, Luke Scott, moving there and outfielders Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold left competing for a job. It will be interesting to see how pitchers attack the Orioles' lineup — even in spring training — with Guerrero batting cleanup. Scott and Nick Markakis might not be pitched around this year. In the clubhouse, Guerrero is reserved, but is considered a good teammate.
How will the rotation shake out?
Jeremy Guthrie is expected to be the Orioles' Opening Day. Lefty Brian Matusz, who had a strong finish to last season, and Justin Duchscherer are also penciled into the rotation. If those three are healthy, two spots remain for three right-handers who combined for 57 big league starts last season. Brad Bergesen is the favorite of the trio, likely meaning Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman will be battling for the final rotation spot. Rick VandenHurk should get a chance to compete, and so might top prospect Zach Britton and nonroster invitee Ryan Drese. Whether the young pitchers can be effective and consistent will be something to watch all season; that vigil starts at the end of February.
Can Duchscherer make it to Opening Day?
One of the more intriguing moves of the offseason was signing the talented and oft-injured right-hander. When healthy, he is a quality major league pitcher (3.13 ERA). But he has made five starts in the past two seasons, suffering from hip and arm injuries and a bout with clinical depression. His contract pays him $700,000 initially with $400,000 extra when he makes the team — so he's not guaranteed a job in April. If healthy, though, he gives the club another quality option in the rotation.
Who closes games?
Koji Uehara ended the season converting 13 of 15 save opportunities and then signed a one-year deal to return. But the club gave a two-year deal to Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and has 121 saves in the past four seasons. They also have Michael Gonzalez, who was signed before last season to be the closer, and Jeremy Accardo and Jim Johnson, who have held that role previously. If Uehara remains healthy, which he hasn't done consistently, he would probably get the first crack at the job. A good spring by Gregg could alter that plan.
How will the hitters respond to new coach Jim Presley?
For the past 12 seasons, an unstable Orioles organization has had one constant: hitting coach Terry Crowley. But Crowley stepped down this offseason and will be more of a roving special instructor in 2011. That opened a spot for former big leaguer Presley, who most recently was the Florida Marlins' hitting coach. The only current Oriole whom Presley has worked with directly is Robert Andino, but his time in the National League allowed him to become familiar with the club's new infielders: J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds. On paper, it's a much better offense than the one that struggled to score runs last year. Presley's pet project could be third baseman Reynolds, who in 2010 batted just .198 and struck out more than 200 times for the third consecutive season.
How healthy is Brian Roberts?
Roberts, and not Showalter, might be the biggest key. When the speedy second baseman is leading off, getting on base and stealing bases, the Orioles are a different offense than they are without him. Roberts missed most of last spring with a herniated disk in his back and aggravated the injury in the fourth game of the season. He didn't play again until late July, then sat out the season's final week with a concussion after hitting himself in the helmet with a bat. The club went 30-29 with Roberts in the lineup and 36-67 without him. Roberts said he feels better now than he has in nearly two years. He has been durable for most of his career, but is 33 years old and has played in nearly 1,200 big league games. This spring will help show whether last season was an aberration or Roberts' body is starting to break down.
Will head athletic trainer Richie Bancells be historically busy?