SARASOTA, Fla. — — Four years ago, he was a waiver claim, a guy with an intriguing arm and an impressive pedigree whom the Orioles had to take a chance on given their lack of pitching depth.
On Friday night, the pitcher whom the Cleveland Indians discarded in January 2007 will toe the rubber at Tropicana Field in his third Opening Day start for the Orioles in the past four seasons.
With that outing against the Tampa Bay Rays, right-hander Jeremy Guthrie ties Steve Barber and Rodrigo Lopez for fourth-most Opening Day starts in modern Orioles history. If Guthrie makes one more in his Orioles career, he'll be in elite company, trailing only a trio that is widely considered the best to start for the franchise: Jim Palmer and Mike Mussina (six openers apiece) and Dave McNally (five).
"It's a very rich tradition to be in that small of a group in this organization, with whatever category, but especially this one. So it's a neat feeling to be there," said Guthrie, who also pitched the club's openers in 2008 and 2009. "Those guys are big, big names, and my goal is to pitch well and, hopefully, down the road, someone can look back and say I belong in that group."
Other members of the Orioles' will tell you Guthrie has already carved out his own important niche within the organization. He has become the leader of a young staff filled with potential. To a man, they'll tell you Guthrie was the guy who first made them feel welcomed as Orioles.
"Jeremy is awesome," said 24-year-old left-hander Brian Matusz. "He is such a great guy, and you can see his work ethic. He comes to the ballpark, and he has a plan, he has a routine, a program. I play catch with him every day, so I see his routine. He's just got it down."
Guthrie, who turns 32 next Friday, said he has never angled to be a staff leader or mentor. If that's the result of the work he puts in to stay in the big leagues, then that's fine with him.
"I have never taken a day for granted in the major leagues, and I think by having that feeling and that focus just drives me to want to work and get better and never be content with where I am," Guthrie said. "And so if I can share that with others, by example, that's great and I am happy if they would learn something from that."
After a rough 2009 in which Guthrie led the American League in losses and homers allowed, he rebounded last season, going 11-14 with a 3.83 ERA and his second straight season recording 200 or more innings. Now, his new pitching coach, Mark Connor, wants him to take the next step and post a winning record for the first time since 2007. Guthrie is 38-48 lifetime while pitching for some terrible Orioles teams.
"Jeremy is at a certain point in his career where it's time to become a winning pitcher. Pitchers really can't control wins so much, but I've been on some teams that were pretty bad that had a couple of guys that won more than they lost," Connor said. "He's pitched in the big leagues, he's been in the rotation three or four full years … it's time for him to be the guy and set an example."
Connor said Guthrie has what it takes to do accomplish that goal.
"He's a great worker. He's very intelligent," Connor said. "All of the things that you look for in a starting pitcher, he does."
A first-round pick of the Indians' in 2002 (22nd overall) out of Stanford, Guthrie spent parts of four seasons in the minors. He made just 16 big league appearances before the Indians took him off their roster.
"Early on in his career, in his days in Cleveland, he had his ups and his downs," said Orioles right-hander Brad Bergesen, 25. "And so he has been through it and it's what a lot of us younger guys went through last year. I think he can share that knowledge and tell us what helped him, along with his struggles, and really help us in the long run."
Guthrie started 2007 in long relief for the Orioles, but his effectiveness and an injury to starter Jaret Wright created an opportunity. He made 26 starts in 2007 and has made at least 30 in each of the past three years. He said he focuses more on that than on getting the ball in the opener.
"Ultimately, I have always downplayed it a little bit, the Opening Day role," Guthrie said. "More important to me is being there the last day of the season. Being there for 30-plus starts and making all of those. That, to me, means a whole lot more than making one at the start of April each season."
In 2010, Guthrie watched Opening Day at Tropicana Field from the visitors' dugout while newly acquired veteran Kevin Millwood started against the Rays.
"Last year, I was able to experience not being on the field but watching it," Guthrie said. "And it's a lot more fun to be there playing and battling with your team on that first game of the season after a long winter."
The Orioles traded for Millwood in December 2009 to serve as the staff leader and No. 1 starter after Guthrie's disappointing season.