Baltimore Orioles' 2010 roster is young and full of hope
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
SARASOTA, FLA. -- There is hope around the Baltimore Orioles this spring, more hope than has been present for the franchise in years. It is there in the deep collection of dazzling young arms, in the graceful movements of Matt Wieters, the towering catcher and recent Sports Illustrated cover boy. You can now find opposing scouts and executives, and not just those employed by the Orioles, who tout the team's prospects and praise its vision. It is this way by design, as team president Andy MacPhail has taken an orange-and-black sledgehammer to the stale, stalled roster he inherited in June 2007, and has rebuilt it around young pitching.
Only three players on the team's 25-man roster at the time of MacPhail's hiring remain in Baltimore: second baseman Brian Roberts, right fielder Nick Markakis and third baseman Miguel Tejada, who was traded and later reacquired by MacPhail.
Whereas once the Orioles tried to buy their core (remember the disastrous 1999 spending spree that brought Albert Belle, Delino DeShields, Mike Timlin, Will Clark and Heathcliff Slocumb to Baltimore?) and fill in the gaps with homegrown "prospects" (remember Calvin Pickering? Matt Riley? Luis Matos?), now MacPhail does just the opposite.
Now, the Orioles' core is as impressive as any in baseball. It includes not only Wieters, Roberts and Markakis, but also center fielder Adam Jones, third base prospect Josh Bell and a half-dozen or so young pitchers led by lefty Brian Matusz, who has created a buzz among scouts this spring with his four-pitch repertoire and poise.
"The best young pitcher I saw in Florida all spring," raved a scout from a National League team about Matusz. (Nationals fans will be happy to hear that the scout did not get a chance to see Stephen Strasburg).
Around that core, MacPhail has smartly filled in the gaps with veterans on short-term contracts. This winter, his haul included Tejada, starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, first baseman Garrett Atkins and closer Mike Gonzalez. Only Gonzalez is signed beyond 2010.
"Any team needs to have a group coming up through the [farm] system to populate the big league club," MacPhail said. "We needed to populate our foundation. We made a huge amount of progress in that, but we still need to continue to do it."
But if this is what represents hope in Baltimore, it must carry this caveat: It's not the same kind of hope that other promising franchises have. Most other teams open the season with a 0-0 record, tied for first place, with nothing but possibilities ahead of them.
The Orioles, on the other hand, seemingly start every season in fourth place and are tasked with proving, against enormous odds, they are better than that. And inevitably, they are not. Such is the reality of life in the outrageously stacked American League East division. At the moment, only the Toronto Blue Jays, among baseball's 29 other teams, can relate.
"I'd like to be 6-foot-3 and have a full head of hair," Manager Dave Trembley said, when asked if he ever wished the Orioles were in another division. "You can hope and dream all you want. But the fact of the matter is, I'm not 6-3, I don't have a full head of hair and we're in the American League East."
Only once in the past 12 seasons have the Orioles finished better than fourth -- a third-place showing in 2004. And in a couple of weeks they start another season in which it seems all but impossible to climb any higher.
You could argue, and not get much debate, that the three best teams in baseball in 2010 all reside in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox (2007), Tampa Bay Rays (2008) and New York Yankees (2009) were the AL's last three representatives in the World Series, and they figure to engage in a neck-and-neck-and-neck race this year. There isn't a whole lot of room for an interloper; in 2008, Toronto valiantly won 86 games and finished fourth.