Orioles' Showalter, Guerrero will be feeling pressure this spring

February 13, 2011|By Kevin Cowherd

I had a big discussion with several Orioles fans over the weekend, during which we drank many beers and attempted to answer an interesting question.

Who's the Oriole under the most pressure this spring?

One guy said it was Brian Roberts. He said the second baseman has to prove that his back is healed. And that he's not dumb enough to smack himself over the head with his bat and end up in la-la land again when he strikes out.

Another guy said it was Nick Markakis.

"Markakis was a train wreck with his power numbers," the guy said. "Just 12 homers and 60 ribbies from your right fielder? He has to bounce back from that."

Me, I took the chicken way out and split my vote between Buck Showalter and Vladimir Guerrero.

Showalter, more than anything else, is why Orioles fans are more optimistic this spring.

You should have seen the folks fawning over him at FanFest. The guy was an absolute rock star. There were even fans sprinkling rose petals in his path wherever he walked — unless that was my imagination.

But that's what happens when you take over a team that's playing horribly and guide it to a 34-23 finish, as Showalter did in 2010. You become a god in this town. Or the closest thing to it.

But I give Showalter credit. So far, he's said all the right things about this season. He says he welcomes the burden of heightened expectations. He says he doesn't want to hear any more whining about the Orioles playing in the tough American League East.

He says everyone on the roster has to improve, including himself. And he says heads will roll if that doesn't happen.

The last Orioles manager to talk this tough was the sainted Earl Weaver. Somewhere in his retirement condo in Florida, Weaver is firing up a smoke and raising a glass to the new sheriff in town.

So now the question is: Can Showalter get the Orioles to play well out of the gate this April?

The owner and the front office have given him a lot to work with. Three-quarters of the infield (Derrek Lee at first base, J.J. Hardy at short, Mark Reynolds at third) is new. Guerrero, the new designated hitter, is the first legitimate cleanup hitter the Orioles have had in years. And the bullpen is improved with the signing of Kevin Gregg.

President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail even made sure arbitration-eligible Luke Scott and Jeremy Guthrie were re-signed before going to a hearing so they could focus in Sarasota, Fla., solely on getting ready for the season.

By the way, I love when ballplayers talk about having to deal with the "distraction" of arbitration talks in spring training.

Scott signed a one-year, $6.4 million contract. Guthrie signed for one year, $5.75 million. I think I could handle that kind of distraction, couldn't you?

How about the family that lives on $60,000 a year while trying to make the mortgage and car payments and take care of a sick kid?

And maybe dealing with job uncertainty, too?

Think that might be just a tad more distracting?

Yeah, me too.

Which brings us to Guerrero, the other Oriole under huge pressure this spring.

The new DH, who just turned 36, agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal. And almost everyone in baseball thinks the Orioles vastly overpaid to get him, which also ratchets up pressure on the guy.

Now all he has to do to meet fan expectations is hit 40 homers and drive in 120 runs.

What, you think that's asking too much of him?

Maybe. But that's the kind of production a lot of fans are expecting. They want A-Rod numbers from Guerrero without the performance-enhancers problem. And without that pesky astronomical, multiyear contract, too.

Just wait until Guerrero goes into a slump and the sports talk shows and message boards start carving him up.

You know the way some Ravens fans rip Joe Flacco? That'll look like a Sunday school spat compared with the way O's fans will go after Guerrero if he bombs.

From all accounts, though, Guerrero should fit in well with the Orioles. He's said to be a quiet, humble guy in the clubhouse, a leader by example.

But even after 15 years in the major leagues, he's still not comfortable with his English. So don't expect a lot of chatty TV interviews and soul-baring introspection in newspaper profiles when he finally arrives in Sarasota.

But the spotlight will definitely be on him. It'll be on Showalter, too.

And we'll see whether it makes them shine — or makes them melt.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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