SARASOTA, Fla. — It is simply a quirk of the schedule that the Orioles have drawn three straight American League East rivals during the opening weekend of their Grapefruit League exhibition season, but it is also a gentle reminder that the strongest division in baseball never sleeps.
Though the race for the playoffs officially begins when the Orioles host the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day on March 31, the quest to become Beast of the East is a year-round proposition.
Maybe it didn't look that way in Baltimore, where fans had to wait until the start of spring training for executive vice president Dan Duquette to deliver a flurry of significant free-agent signings. Most of the offseason attention over the winter was focused on the free-spending New York Yankees and the reborn Red Sox, which only magnified the impression that the Orioles were losing ground in the American League East long before anyone had thrown a pitch in anger.
"It's not like, 'Well, let's see what they've done this spring,' because the media, the way it is nowadays, you know every little thing everybody's doing,'' manager Buck Showalter said Saturday. "We all get kind of bogged down, and if somebody kind of has a flurry, everybody else is perceived as getting left behind. Until they quit playing the game between the lines, all strengths and weakness will show up."
That process has begun, but it's way too early to get any real sense for how much each division rival has improved or regressed. This weekend is more about first impressions than anything else, and the Orioles made a good one with Friday's victory over the Tampa Bay Rays and Saturday's comeback win over the Toronto Blue Jays in their home opener. They will face the Red Sox on Sunday.
No one is looking too closely at the results, of course, but the three straight divisional matchups are representative of the constant competitive dynamic in the AL East, where no team can be taken lightly.
"We didn't need a reminder,'' Showalter said. "Look at Tampa. Everybody knows how good they're going to be. It's a given. Everybody knows how talented Toronto is. I think our guys approach it more as, 'We've got to take care of our own stuff and our own business.' If you get bogged down on what they're going to run out there, it could be — I wouldn't say intimidating — but it could become a mental challenge we don't need. It's going to be enough of a physical challenge."
That is pretty much the approach articulated by most of the players who helped boost the Orioles back into contention over the past two seasons. They're well aware of all the moves the Yankees made and all the money they spent after missing the playoffs last year, but the Orioles already have proved they won't be buried under the Yankees' bankroll.
"This is a tough division to play in,'' first baseman Chris Davis said. "It's going to be a tough division in and out. The Yankees obviously made a lot of moves. The Red Sox won the World Series, but we also did some things here lately that made us a better club. That's something to be proud and something to be excited about."
"The thing that's extremely fun about playing in this division is that every team has a chance to win it. You don't know until you go out there. There's a lot of unknowns. That's why we play the game. If I could sit here and tell you what's going to happen, there would be no point for us to go out there."
Each team has its warts. The Yankees spent a fortune and upgraded their rotation and their starting lineup, but they don't have a proven closer and they do have several key veterans with recent injury histories. The Red Sox lost offensive sparkplug Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yanks and are depending more heavily this year on young players. The Rays still have run production issues, and the Blue Jays have a lot to prove after finishing 23 games out of first place in a year that started with much greater expectations.
The Orioles have done much over the past two weeks to shore up the rotation and upgrade an already power-packed lineup, but they also have no proven closer and will need to get more innings out of their starting pitchers to recapture their 2012 mojo in close games.
For all the attention paid to the recent spending spree, Davis said the mindset is no different than it was going into 2013.
"Not really,'' he said. "I felt good about our team going into last year. I thought we had a good mix of guys. I thought we had what it took to get to the postseason. It just didn't work out. You can make all the moves in the world and have nothing to show for it at the end of the season. Toronto is a team that, you could say, last year looked really good on paper, but a lot of things went wrong for them and it just didn't work out."
Showalter likes to knock on wood a lot, because the unforeseen also plays a big role in the outcome of every season, and he couldn't help taking a parting shot at "the Evil Empire" on that score.
"The big thing this time of year, it's about: 'Can we keep these guys on the field,' '' he said. "If you took all five of these clubs and said nobody is going to have an injury all year, it would be a whole different dynamic, and it's not going to happen.
"The Yankees had some challenges with that last year, as they talk about a lot."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on most Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.