Orioles fans still unsure how to feel

May 03, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

During the first few weeks of the baseball season, long-suffering Orioles fans have been faced with a difficult choice — whether to go all in with Buck Showalter and the new-look O's or hold the 2011 version of the team at arms length to avoid being hurt again.

There's a legitimate argument to be made either way.

The Orioles surged out of the gate a month ago and looked like they were going to pick up right where they left off under Showalter last fall, when they closed out the 2010 season with an amazing two-month turnaround. Then they suddenly reeled into an eight-game tailspin that brought back enough painful memories of the first four months of last season to test the enthusiasm of even the most optimistic among the Orioles faithful.

Now, they have righted themselves — winning back-to-back series heading into the three-game set in Kansas City that starts on Tuesday night — and the emotional roller coaster is headed north again.

Where it stops, nobody knows, because there really is no way to tell at this point how good — or bad — this team will turn out to be.

There is no question that the '11 Orioles are constructed better than the team that spent last spring and early summer trying to figure out just how low it could go before suddenly kicking into gear upon the arrival of Showalter in early August. What is in question is whether the upgraded offensive lineup and the volatile bullpen will be able to achieve the kind of chemistry necessary to iron out the rough spots in the young starting rotation.

The Orioles scored just enough runs to get on a minor roll against the Red Sox and White Sox, but a cursory look at the individual offensive numbers is enough to cast real doubt on the likelihood of the club's first winning season since 1997.

Of course, there are always two ways to look at a slow offensive start. If you ask Showalter, he'll tell you that established major league players tend to gravitate toward their career averages over the course of the long season. Based on that theory, all of the veterans who are wallowing in the low .200s (or worse) figure to get hot at some point and fly well above their career levels to get back to equilibrium. Orioles fans can only hope.

The negative view would factor age into the equation for veteran first baseman Derrek Lee and 2010 into the evaluation of Mark Reynolds' sub-Mendoza batting average. It's also fair to ask whether the all-or-nothing nature of cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero's approach at the plate really contributes to a consistent scoring attack.

My sense is that reality is somewhere in between, and that's enough reason to take a glass-half-full attitude toward the remainder of the season. Lee appears to be getting more comfortable against American League pitching and Reynolds has managed to deliver more key hits than his sagging batting average might indicate. Nick Markakis is off to a very frustrating start, but no one suspects that he has forgotten how to hit.

The lesson of the past couple of weeks is that the possibility of a winning season rests more on the continuing development of the young pitchers, which will determine both the short-term outlook for the team and long-term outlook for the organization.

In this case, most of the leading indicators are positive. The dramatic emergence of leading American League Rookie of the Year candidate Zach Britton has given the Orioles a tremendous boost, while Jake Arrieta continues to get comfortable at the major league level and Brian Matusz nears his return from troublesome intercostal injury.

No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie has provided great leadership and has pitched very well, but once again seems snake-bit when it comes to getting enough offensive support and late-inning relief to be rewarded for his efforts.

Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen have weathered some rocky moments, but also have played important roles in buying time until Matusz can bring the rotation back to full strength.

For the most part, the starters have gotten into the sixth inning or later, but the bullpen has generated too much suspense for the team to get comfortable with a modest late-inning lead. New closer Kevin Gregg has gotten the job done, but not in a way that instills great confidence in the Orioles' bruised fan base.

Which brings us back to the original question: One month into the 2011 season, are you buying in or holding out?

Either way, I'll understand.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/schmuckstop

Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Friday's at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and WBAL.com.

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