After break-even exhibition season, O's fortunes could go either way

March 30, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

Buck Showalter laid out the perfect spring training scenario as soon as the Orioles reported to the newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium complex six weeks ago, and it didn't call for his club to win all 32 of its Grapefruit League games.

He was looking for the O's to be right around .500 when they closed out the exhibition season — which they did on Tuesday — and that's just where they ended up. They lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, 7-4, to finish with a 15-15-2 record. Can't get more .500 than that.

Don't misunderstand. Showalter wasn't willing to settle for less. He just wanted to make sure the Orioles won enough in the spring to keep the customers satisfied while using the exhibition season to get ready for the games that really count.

Rule of thumb: Only bad teams care about their won-loss records in March, because they want to convince their fans that this year will be better than last. Showalter relieved himself of that obligation by leading the Orioles out of the darkness last August.

Does that mean he can hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner across Main Street in Sarasota and head north without a care in the world?

Not exactly.

There was a lot to like about the last six weeks, starting with the debut of the sparkling stadium and the unveiling of the newly upgraded offensive lineup. The Orioles generated enough excitement to set all-time spring attendance records for both the club and the Ed Smith complex (115,506). It didn't hurt that the weather was all but perfect throughout.

Considering the newness of the surroundings and the new look of the team, it's certainly tempting to buy into the notion that this is the dawn of a new era of Orioles baseball — we can only hope — but there was also much about the past six weeks that should temper expectations for the 2011 regular season.

It's fair to say that Showalter and the coaching staff were hoping to break camp with a better feel for the young pitchers in the starting rotation and a better feeling about the bullpen, which is supposed to be significantly deeper with the addition of Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo. Turns out they're going to have to wait and see like the rest of us.

The rotation still isn't set and it didn't help that both Brad Bergesen and Brian Matusz took line drives off their pitching arms over the past week. Right now, the only certain starter in a certain spot is Opening Night pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.

No reason to panic about that. Bergesen and Matusz should be fine, but their contusions have caused a bit of confusion, and there's the not-so-small matter of the combined 5.51 ERA of the five pitchers who will likely make up the rotation for the first month of the season.

The fog seems to be clearing over the rest of the roster. Much of the spring was spent in a state of simmering angst regarding the neck and back issues that limited Brian Roberts to just 12 games, but he settled into the starting lineup just in time and finished the exhibition season on a roll.

The other big injury issue also seems to have resolved itself. New first baseman Derrek Lee also was severely limited in his early participation — first because of soreness in his hand and wrist and later because of a minor foot problem. He played in just eight games, but he had four hits in his final five at-bats and proclaimed himself ready to start the season.

If it's all about getting some offensive momentum and carrying it into the regular season, Orioles fans have a right to expect a more exciting team. Though backup catcher Jake Fox has had an electric spring, leading the world with 10 exhibition home runs, Vladimir Guerrero has been the most impressive hitter in camp, batting .365 with five homers and leading the Grapefruit League with 20 RBIs.

The O's also got very solid spring performances from Nick Markakis (.375 avg., 13 RBIs), Adam Jones (.304 avg., 5 home runs), J.J. Hardy (.351 avg.) and Nolan Reimold (.315), who didn't even make the 25-man roster.

It's hard to imagine the Orioles not scoring more runs and winning more games than last year, but it will come down to your definition of success. Sports Illustrated just picked them to finish fourth in the American League East with a 78-84 record, which would represent real progress after finishing 19 games out of fourth place in 2010, but a 14th consecutive losing season would not be satisfying by any local measure.

Showalter may have already changed the culture in the clubhouse, but the Orioles need to crack the .500 barrier to change the fatalistic attitude in the stands and point the franchise toward the promised land.

That's going to be a tall order, even for Buck.

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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