For a change, Orioles will start spring training with relatively little drama

February 12, 2011|Peter Schmuck

When the Orioles open pitcher and catcher workouts on Monday at their newly renovated spring training facility, there will be one thing that is conspicuous by its absence as the new baseball season gets underway.

Drama.

Whether it was intentional or not, the Orioles spent the past few weeks sweeping away just about anything that might create unnecessary uncertainty or angst at the beginning of Buck Showalter's first full season as manager.

• The Orioles added the final two pieces to the rebuilt offense, signing first baseman Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero to one-year free-agent contracts.

• Andy MacPhail delivered his annual late-winter Hail Mary with the signing of troubled-but-talented starting pitcher Justin Duchscherer.

• The O's settled all of their pending arbitration cases, most recently when starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie agreed to a one-year, $5.75 million deal.

• And the Orioles finally worked out their radio rights situation last week, moving their broadcast schedule back to AM on WBAL.

Don't misunderstand. Nobody's saying that the club is in perfect shape to wade back into the American League East. There are still way more questions than answers about the Orioles' retooled roster. But the front office has done a good job — in a fairly short time — of shoring up the roster and pushing aside a lot of potential distractions.

There may be some grumpy 1-to-3 (service time) players at contract renewal time, which is almost always the case. There will be some construction crews still scurrying about the rebuilt stadium rushing to get it ready for the first exhibition game in a couple of weeks. There's always something, but it certainly feels like the start of a new era for the O's.

Here's what hasn't changed, because it never does.

The Orioles' chances of ending their half-marathon string of losing seasons depend primarily on the group of pitchers who will report to Sarasota, Fla., on Sunday and throw their first short bullpen sessions over the next few days.

It has been thus since baseball was played in knickers. Pitching really is — as the cliche goes — a large percentage of the game, and that principle is particularly applicable as the Orioles' young starting rotation and upgraded bullpen get to work.

Guthrie will take the lead again after an 11-14 season in which his won-loss record was no indication of the way he pitched. He bounced back from a difficult 2009 (10-17, 5.04 ERA) to deliver a very solid performance that included a 3.83 ERA, 200 innings pitched for the second straight season and significantly improved hit-to-inning and strikeout-to-walk ratios.

The Orioles can only hope that this is the year where the progression takes him into the upper echelon of American League starting pitchers, which is why it was important to get his contract issue out of the way.

Left-hander Brian Matusz could also be poised for a breakthrough after recovering from a slow start in 2010 to look like one of the best pitchers in the game down the stretch. He was 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA in August and September — one of the major reasons for the team's dramatic turnaround during Showalter's first two months as manager.

It gets more interesting from there. Brad Bergesen battled through a difficult season, but also finished strong with a 5-3 record and 2.96 ERA in August and September. Jake Arrieta held his own in 18 rookie starts, but 22-year-old Chris Tillman still may have some growing up to do.

Which brings us back to Andy's latest gamble. Duchscherer is a major wild card who could be a high-quality upper-rotation starter, a total non-factor or something in between. He has appeared in just five games since 2008, but when he has been healthy and able to pitch, he has been very good. His career record as both a reliever and starter, is 33-25 with an impressive 3.13 ERA.

If Duchscherer doesn't pan out and either Tillman or Arrieta struggle to hold the final spots in the rotation, the Orioles may have to go looking for another veteran or accelerate young Zach Britton, but that's why they play all those exhibition games.

There is little question that the bullpen is improved. The Orioles were able to sign one of last year's top closers — Kevin Gregg — and bring back Koji Uehara and left-hander Michael Gonzalez, which should give Showalter some interesting options when he needs four or five outs at the end of the game.

Right-hander Jim Johnson also figures to be prominent in the late innings and eager to bounce back after a season that was interrupted by a strained elbow ligament, and Jason Berken was solid in middle relief until a labrum injury forced him onto the disabled list in August.

The Orioles also acquired Jeremy Accardo — another interesting and unpredictable reclamation project — and have a number of other candidates for the middle relief roles, so depth does not appear to be a problem.

There's a lot to sort out, which is why the pitchers and catchers report several days ahead of the position players, and there will be plenty of intrigue over the next six weeks.

Just no drama.

For a change.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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