By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; D01
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.
Perhaps, then, real hope for the Orioles means something else. Perhaps it revealed itself in a recent story on SI.com that Commissioner Bud Selig's "special committee for on-field matters" was kicking around an idea for radical, "floating" realignment in which teams could switch divisions based on their payrolls and geography. Presumably, it would get the Orioles out of the AL East, at least some years.
MacPhail, a member of Selig's 14-person committee, smiled dreamily when asked about the realignment idea.
"On a purely selfish basis, [the idea is] hardly going to get any opposition from me," MacPhail said. "But those things are not things that are on the immediate horizon, or even close to it. Complaining about the division, I worry that it becomes an excuse for not improving the team. Let's improve the team. We'll let someone else worry about that other stuff. Let's just make the Baltimore Orioles better."
For MacPhail and the Orioles, the process of getting better has been slow and painful. Last year saw the big league debuts of not only Wieters and Matusz, but also five other pitchers who spent time in the Orioles' rotation: right-handers Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, David Hernandez and Koji Uehara, a veteran of Japanese baseball. At any given time, their rotation typically consisted of veteran Jeremy Guthrie and four rookies.
The lessons they absorbed were often brutally applied -- over the course of 98 losses -- but invaluable all the same.
"We were just trying to get our feet wet, feel our way around," Tillman said. "This year it's more about the result. This year, it's not a rebuilding team anymore."
Tillman does an admirable job of distilling the company line, which is: This year, it's not about learning -- it's about winning.
"We introduced a good group of players last year, but we didn't show any collective progress," MacPhail said. "This year I'd like the needle to move in that regard."
Trembley added: "What we've done here is player development at the major league level. I think we need to turn the corner on that and turn that individual progress into team progress."
Still, any notion of progress and any concept of a ceiling for the Orioles is informed by the unforgiving nature of their surroundings: the AL East. Certainly, a .500 record would be progress. But then what? Can they contend in 2011 in this division? If the Rays can do it on a bare-bones payroll, surely the Orioles can, right?
"I think it's cool being in this division," Tillman, all of 21 years old, said. "Obviously it's a tough division, but I take it as a challenge."
But then this fact is pointed out to Tillman: Of the 287 starts Roy Halladay made during the 11 years he spent with the Toronto Blue Jays (before being traded to Philadelphia this past winter), fully a quarter of them, 73 to be exact, came against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Suddenly, Tillman's face went blank except for his eyes widening in shock. All he could muster was two words: "Holy smokes."