Orioles manager Buck Showalter smiles while standing among… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
For too long, the Orioles and their fans have lived in a fishbowl full of excuses.
The Baltimore market was too small to compete on the same economic level as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The owner was unwilling to spend enough of the club's regional sports network revenue to build a competitive team in the tough American League East. And, when Peter Angelos did open his wallet, the Orioles felt like they were spending "Confederate money."
If that wasn't enough reason for the 14 years that the Orioles wallowed in despair before their dramatic turnaround in 2012, they also were bedeviled for much of that time by a horribly substandard spring training situation.
Even over the past two seasons — in which the Orioles averaged 89 victories — there remained an undercurrent of fan frustration that didn't really abate until the recent front office spending spree that upgraded the pitching staff and the power-packed lineup.
Well, the time for excuses is over.
The Orioles payroll is easily the highest in club history. The franchise has an elite and geographically compatible training situation for its major and minor league operations. The 2014 team — at least on paper — has enough talent and depth to be a major player in the division race and the playoffs.
Now, it's up to manager Buck Showalter and the players to take the next big competitive step in the continuing renaissance of the Orioles organization.
This should be no great revelation, especially for Showalter, who has always been a no-excuses kind of guy. But it had become too easy for fans to pull up the past and rationalize every setback as another reflection on a seemingly aloof, uncommitted ownership. That isn't going to work this year.
The Orioles still aren't the Yankees, of course. The way executive vice president Dan Duquette had to slow play the market to get the most for the $67 million the club spent during its free-agent flurry over the past six weeks is a reflection of the middle-market limitations that will always be in play. He continued to prove, however, that it is possible to aggregate talent without having to outbid two of the richest teams in the sport.
The case can be made that the Orioles will have the best offense in the major leagues once Manny Machado is all the way back from knee surgery. They return almost all of the defensive alignment that set all-time records for fewest errors and highest fielding percentage a season ago. Duquette was not able to address every weakness as the team heads into this new season, but the front office did enough to pass the baton to the players and coaches.
The offense still needs to do a better job of squeezing pitchers and moving runners, something that Showalter addressed as a priority for spring training. The starting pitchers still need to prove they can pitch far enough into games to keep the bullpen from wearing down. The addition of veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez should help in that regard.
Though there is plenty of organizational bullpen depth, the greatest area of uncertainty for this team is the closer role, which was vacated when the Orioles traded Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics after he saved more games than any other pitcher over the previous two seasons.
Hard-throwing Tommy Hunter is expected to open the season in that role, and the coaching staff seems confident he has the right makeup for the job, but there is no way to know for sure until he gets out there and does it.
In the meantime, the front office's emphasis presumably has shifted to the harder work of keeping the current roster together. Shortstop J.J. Hardy can become a free agent next winter, so his contract situation is most urgent, and the team will face some tough choices with catcher Matt Wieters and first baseman Chris Davis eligible to leave after the 2015 season.
Maybe the window is closing on the nucleus of this team, and maybe it's not. The long-term future could well be affected by the short-term results, which is just another reason that the ball has changed courts.
No more excuses. It's time to hunt.
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 Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.