Believe it or not, there are reasons for Orioles optimism

April 01, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Let's face it: you've heard nothing but doom and gloom about the Orioles for weeks.

A lot of it came from serial kill-joys like me, who think the Orioles didn't do enough in the offseason to improve themselves, avoid a 15th straight losing season, another last-place finish in the AL East, etc.

But today, with the season opener against the Minnesota Twins around the corner, we break out the smiley-face for this column.

Yes, today we give you seven things to like — no, really — about the Orioles this season:

Camden Yards: Are you sick of all the 20th anniversary hoo-ha already? OK, me too. But there's no denying the Orioles play in a great little ballpark, the best in baseball. And there's no minimizing the impact it's had on the city and on stadium architecture throughout Major League Baseball.

Watching baseball there on a warm summer night as darkness falls and the city skyline lights up is still one of the great experiences in life.

Too bad the Hilton hotel beyond left field blocks so much of the view. My buddy Rob Kasper is right: the looming off-white façade offers all the charm of Eastern European public housing.

Buck Showalter: Here's what I want to know: what is this guy on? Because whatever it is, I want to be on it, too.

Throughout spring training, the Orioles manager has been his usual indefatigable self. He's also been relentlessly upbeat for someone whose team is expected to get beat up on all season long.

I thought the hiring of Showalter two years ago was the absolute right thing to do. But count me as one of those who wasn't sure how he'd handle the soul-crushing reality of day-to-day life with this franchise.

He's handled it just fine. Doesn't whine, doesn't complain, doesn't throw his players under the bus.

Just goes to work every day and tries to make this team better.

Whatever he's on, they ought to put in the water around here.

The continued development of Matt Wieters: I don't care if he's the next Johnny Bench or not. The Orioles' All-Star catcher keeps getting better and better.

He won a Gold glove last season and improved dramatically as a right-handed hitter. He's tough, selfless and consumed — maybe to a fault — with making the pitchers better and keeping their confidence up.

And boy was it fun watching him gun down would-be base stealers last year.

The steadying presence of J.J. Hardy: Getting used to a new team after the O's acquired him from the Minnesota Twins, losing a month to an oblique injury — neither seemed to faze the Orioles shortstop last season.

"I can't imagine baseball life without him," Showalter said this spring.

Which sounds over-the-top only until you remember Hardy had a career-high 30 homers and 80 RBIs while flawlessly fielding his position — actually making it look easy.

And get this: he says he's happy playing in Baltimore. Honest. Although a $22.5 million contract extension for three years tends to have that effect on people.

The work ethic of Adam Jones: Question: Who on the Orioles busted his tail more than Jones did last season? Answer: no one.

The center fielder was still running out ground balls — hard, too — and hustling after base hits in the gap at the end of the season.

Sure, that's what he gets paid to do. That's what all major leaguers get paid to do. Doesn't mean they do it, as we all know.

But Jones didn't cheat the game — or the fans — last season. He was the Orioles' MVP and had a career-high 25 homers and 83 RBIs. He's only 26 and says he's determined to take his game to the next level, which is what everyone's waiting for him to do.

The "gamer" mentality of Nick Markakis: Yes, the right fielder's power numbers have decreased dramatically — 15 homers and 73 RBIs last season, 12 homers and 60 RBIs the year before that.

But no one wants to play more than Markakis, who won his first Gold Glove last year.

After they wheeled him into the operating room in January to repair abdominal tears — injuries his surgeon called "very serious" — Markakis practically yawned and said no problem, he'd be ready for Opening Day.

Why would anyone doubt him? He played in 160 games for the Orioles last year and has played in 157 or more the past five seasons.

The "thunder bat" of Mark Reynolds: Let's all agree Reynolds was a train-wreck at third base last season. But he's lost more than 20 pounds and seems determined this spring to be a better fielder.

Besides, the Orioles didn't sign him to be the next Brooks Robinson. They signed him to hit homers. And he hit 37 of them last year. Assuming the weight loss didn't cut into his power — that's all the Orioles need: a guy on a diet who strikes out a lot with no pop in his bat — he'll be fun to watch each time he comes to the plate.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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