After 13-year drought, excitement finally surrounds the Orioles

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 12:10 AM

Young southpaw Brian Matusz of the Orioles walked past General Manager Andy MacPhail before an exhibition game this weekend and pointed to the lineup card on the wall of the dugout.

"Thanks for that," said Matusz. "That's exciting."

The names on the card included newly acquired Vlad Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy and, as soon as next week, the name of Derrek Lee will be added as well. Combine that new quartet with the promising, but often overwhelmed young hitters that the Orioles already had in Matt Wieters, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Finally, include a healthy Brian Roberts and Luke Scott (27 homers last year), and what have you got?

"All of a sudden, you have a one-through-nine American League East lineup," said MacPhail on Sunday. "Last year, Reynolds had an off year [with 32 homers and 85 RBI], but he would have still led our team in homers and RBI. This year, he'll probably bat seventh or eighth for us. To have somebody that dangerous that far down in the lineup, that's quite a change."

It's been a very long time, 13 seasons to be exact, since any comparable excitement surrounded the Orioles. And it's not just the Baltimore batters, like Wieters, Jones and Markakis, who averaged an awful 14 homers and 61 RBI in 565 at bats last year, that are elated after spending last season wanting to scream, "Gimme some help!"

To an even greater degree, it's the young Oriole rotation whose development is helped most by a much-improved offense. Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and this season's hot rookie Zach Britton need serious run support when they run up against the mighty lineups of the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.

"This franchise needed to change the narrative," said MacPhail, who runs only the third team since '48 to endure at least 13 straight losing seasons. "I know the [current] Pirates [18 straight losing years]. Who's the other one?" The expansion Mariners in their first 14 years, not even an apples-to-apples comparison.

"We were anxious to try to sustain the positive momentum we had at the end of last year with [Manager] Buck [Showalter] on board," said MacPhail of the 96-loss Orioles' dazzling rebound to a 34-23 finish under the feisty, quipping Showalter. "Ownership was willing to move the payroll up $20 million to make it happen.

"We blew through one payroll number. Then we blew through the next one, too," said MacPhail, who wanted to outbid the Nationals for potential closer Kevin Gregg ($10 million for two years), as well as first baseman Lee ($10 million in '11 with all incentives). "We thought we were all done. But Guerrero was still out there."

How often can you add a man who'll be in the Hall of Fame and who batted cleanup in the previous World Series after a 115-RBI season?

Guerrero agreed to defer $3 million of his $8 million deal until '16-'17 and owner Peter Angelos said, "Yes," to that, too.

Sometimes, everything falls in place, plus things you never even planned. That's how the Orioles and MacPhail ended up pulling off the kind of offseason that the Nationals only dreamed of.

In the debate between Baltimore and Washington, chalk one up for realism. Washington talked big and aimed high, vowing that it needed a top-of-the-rotation ace or maybe even two. Then the Nats ended up with obscure lefty Tom Gorzelanny while giving $126 million to a semi-star rightfielder.

The Orioles, outscored by about 200 runs apiece (809 to 613) by their four AL East rivals, desperately needed heart-of-the-order hitters, but they didn't talk specific names; then they under-promised and over-delivered. In Guerrero, Reynolds and Lee, they added a trio that averaged 27 homers and 93 RBI '10.

Jayson Werth had 27 homers and 85 RBI.

The Orioles couldn't have done much better, especially when you consider their total '11 payroll cost for these three is a maximum of $23 million while the Nats are committed to $21-million-a-year to Werth in '15-'16 and '17 when he'll be 36, 37 and 38.

The deal for Hardy, who's averaged 14 homers the last three years, is a double bonus. If Roberts stays healthy, he can replace the bat of Cesar Izturis (one homer in '10). If not, Izturis is already working at second base this spring. Just to show he wasn't slacking, MacPhail also signed a candidate for his rotation in Justin Duchscherer (pronounced "Detroit") who's probably comparable to Gorzelanny.

If it seems that, in the wake of the Nats' signing of Werth, the Orioles were determined to up the ante and out do them, that's probably correct. Gregg's two-year, $10 million deal with a club option for '13 thwarted the Nats. He also gave Lee the $10 million deal (including incentives) that the Nats wouldn't touch. As recently as '09, the three-time Gold Glove winner Lee was ninth in the MVP voting with 35 homers and 111 RBI. Coming off thumb surgery, Lee's a risk at 35, but he also has a higher bounce-back ceiling than the consistent, but less intense Adam LaRoche. Guerrero and Lee are only signed for a year each - but it's a crucial season for the O's, especially with the Nats supposedly poised to do more offseason buying before the '12 season when they expect Stephen Strasburg to return.

So far, the Orioles have stolen the spring spotlight, right down to their lovely new spring training park in Sarasota, Fla. Great for fans, but even more important to free agents who like short spring-training bus rides, not the long lousy kind that Nats players suffer through in their Viera, Fla., home.

The Nats talk about the synergies between their improved defense and their humble pitch-to-contact starting rotation. Oh, that'll draw 'em to South Capitol Street in droves, especially with slugger Adam Dunn gone.

Capitalism claims that tougher competition forces everybody to elevate performance. That certainly seems to be happening between the Orioles and Nats. The hoopla around Strasburg, Harper and Werth simply underlined the Orioles' need to get going. In the six years since the Nats came to D.C., they've been slightly less awful than the Orioles (412-559 to 411-560) and have had a better record in four of six seasons. Last year, the Nats "outdrew" the Orioles, if the term can be stretched so far, by 22,568 to 21,662.

Now, with the arrival of Showalter, the late-'10 turnaround and a brilliant offseason, the Orioles have a near-monopoly on preseason buzz.

To some degree, the signings of Guerrero, 36, and Lee are the definition of a relatively cheap cosmetic one-year patches to appease a bitter fan base. But there's also a longer view. If those vets help more than a half-dozen young Orioles players to establish themselves, it'll be worth it.

"The hope is that these new players will help level out the load for everybody else," said MacPhail. "We want the pitching to keep going like it did after Buck arrived last year. We had a mid-5.00's ERA before and just above 3.00 after he got here.

"And we don't really have many long-term contract commitments that tie our hands in the future." Oh, like Werth?

The Nats and Orioles haven't had a rivalry since Washington got baseball back because neither team was good enough to inspire one.

Finally, the Orioles have done their part.

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