Schmuck: Don't read too much into spring, but is there hope for Orioles?

March 27, 2012|Peter Schmuck

Since Orioles fans have been seduced and abandoned more times than anyone would like to count, there probably should be a legal requirement that any preseason analysis that includes even mildly positive forward-looking statements has to come with this disclaimer:

Spring training is a big tease and you'd have to be crazy to read too much into anything that happens in sunny Florida in March.

No one should get too excited that left-hander Tommy Hunter shook off an early-spring back injury to pitch six scoreless innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night…or that Jake Arrieta looks terrific and appears to be lined up to be the starter when the O's open the regular season against the Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards on April 6.

While you're at it, try not to lapse into delusions of Oriole adequacy because Brian Matusz has most of his velocity back, and Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen has a great WHIP, and Jason Hammel just looks like he should be an overpowering pitcher.

Those are all true facts, however, so it's fair to say that the process by which manager Buck Showalter is assembling his regular-season starting rotation is pretty much on track with 10 days to go before the games start to count. He couldn't have expected — or hoped for — a whole lot more at this point.

Here's another fact that has received relatively little attention this spring. In Showalter's three previous incarnations as a major league manager, his teams have made dramatic turnarounds in his second full year in charge. In each case, he took a team that had finished at least 10 games under .500 and led it to at least 88 victories.

Maybe that's why new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was so quick to set the bar for his first season at or above the .500 mark.

Showalter began his major league managerial career with the New York Yankees in 1992 and went 76-86. The following season the Yankees won 88 games and finished second in the AL East behind the eventual world champion Toronto Blue Jays. They would be in first place when the game was shut down by the labor war in 1994 and reached the playoffs in 1995 before Showalter was replaced by Joe Torre.

His next job was building the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks from the ground up, so no one was surprised when the Dbacks won just 65 games in their inaugural 1998 season. The surprise came the following year, when Showalter led them to 100 regular season wins and their first postseason appearance.

Fast forward to 2003 and a difficult 91-loss first season with the Texas Rangers. Showalter's sophomore magic kicked in again and the Rangers improved by 28 victories to finish with an 89-63 record.

What does all this mean? Showalter would be the first to tell you it probably doesn't mean anything, since every situation and every organization is different. The Yankees were in the process of crystallizing into the dynasty that would result in four world titles under Torre, but there's no question that Showalter had a positive impact on the organization. The Diamondbacks were built from scratch, but they were playing in the friendlier National League West. The Rangers didn't take the next step after their turnaround season, though they have since grown into an AL West powerhouse.

If there is a point here, it is that there is folly in reading too much into history either way.

The Orioles' recent history tells us that nothing good is going to happen this year, and anyone who ignores that history in favor of some best-case fantasy is likely doomed to repeat it without the emotional protection afforded by a healthy amount of cynicism.

Showalter's record suggests that — given time and the ability to shape an organization — he can turn a failing team around in a hurry. He's 3 for 3 in that regard, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt even if the Orioles franchise does not.

He has said all spring that this team can compete if he can send five starters to the mound who can consistently get into the seventh inning. The fact that his rotation has started to come together at the right time at least keeps that possibility open.

It's up to you to decide whether that's reason to cheer up or tear up.

Read Peter Schmuck's blog, The Schmuck Stops Here, at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com

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