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Spring postcard: Improving Orioles still have a long way to go

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Three observations from Orioles camp:

1. The Showalter Effect continues

When the Orioles lured Buck Showalter away from his seat at the desk on ESPN's Baseball Tonight last July, they were 32-73, the owners of the worst record in the majors. Something clicked under the 54-year-old former Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers skipper, and it clicked fast. The club immediately embarked upon a four-game winning streak, and in Showalter's 57 games the O's went 34-23 -- the AL's second-best record over that stretch -- and they did it despite the fact that 45 of those 57 games were against teams that finished the regular-season with a winning percentage of .500 or better.

The Orioles' impressive Showalter-directed turnaround was buoyed by the returns from injury of most of the back end of their bullpen (Mike Gonzalez, Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara) and of their leadoff hitter, Brian Roberts, says Showalter. "I say that because it's the truth," he insists, perhaps out of kindness to his 2010 managerial predecessors, Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel. "Dave Trembley's a good baseball man. So is Juan Samuel. There's some things I had at my disposal that they didn't have."

But Showalter also extracted performances out of his players -- particularly his generally young rotation -- that Trembley and Samuel could not. Baltimore's starters had a 5.61 ERA before Showalter arrived. "The next 57 games, our starters had an ERA just over three, second best in the league," says GM Andy MacPhail. "They've shown that it's in there. Now they have the confidence to know that they are capable of being successful at this level. If we can sustain that, then I think we're in for a fun year."

Showalter is a stickler for essentially everything -- how the grass should be cut on the Orioles' practice fields in Sarasota; how run-down drills should be conducted -- but more than that, says catcher Matt Wieters, he instantly remade the culture in a clubhouse that has not produced a winning team since 1997. "He's changed the perception of what we can be," Wieters explains. "It's changing the perception of how the guys feel about the Orioles. It's not always the biggest, fastest teams that win, it's the team that's the most prepared. Buck's going to be the most prepared."

Not every Oriole in camp is so inclined to on command sing his leader's praises, however. "I don't want to answer any more questions about Buck," says outfielder Adam Jones. "Too much about Buck, honestly. I answered like a hundred questions about him yesterday."

That's fine by Showalter, whose team could improve upon its final 66-96 record in 2010 by a staggering 25 wins and still not win the AL East. "It's about actions, not about talk," he says. "We'll see. People in Baltimore, we've given them a tough stretch of baseball to support. They really don't want to hear a lot of lip service. So, we'll grind on it, try to put ourselves in a position to be better, see where it takes us."

2. Scoring runs won't be a problem

MacPhail entered the off-season with a clear-cut target: Red Sox catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez. "We thought Victor was a good fit for us," the GM says. "Switch-hitter, could catch periodically, spell Wieters. Also, in our view, a very high-character guy. We went after him early and pretty hard. I think we probably were the high bid for a while, but at the end of the day he chose to go to Detroit. We ended up coming in second there."

While Martinez opted to join his Venezuelan countryman Miguel Cabrera with the Tigers, the winter was still a bounteous one for MacPhail. He added potential closer Kevin Gregg, starter Justin Duchscherer and a quartet of veteran hitters -- including first baseman Derrek Lee, shortstop J.J. Hardy and two others to be discussed below -- who have between them produced 26 seasons of more than 20 home runs. The Orioles last year gave 473 at-bats to a player, shortstop Cesar Izturis, who produced baseball's worst single-season OPS since 1994 (.545), but they will enter 2011 without a weak spot in their lineup, and could easily vault from the league's 27th-ranked scoring offense to among its top five. If the rotation performs as it did during Showalter's first two months, Baltimore could legitimately challenge the AL East's Red Sox-Yankees-Rays hierarchy. "Makes it easy to dream," says one club staffer.

3. Vladimir Guerrero's here, but should he be?

Guerrero was the last significant piece MacPhail added this off-season, and there was a good reason for that timing. "It was not something we initially anticipated," the GM says, of doling out a one-year, $8 million to the nine-time All-Star. "But we looked at it at the end, and we looked at our lineup one through nine, and we were of the mind that we could have a chance at a pretty productive inning no matter where you were in the lineup. Vlad finished that out for us."

Guerrero experienced a rebirth as a Texas Ranger last season, in which he hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs. But 20 of those homers and 75 of those RBIs came before the All-Star Game, and his second half seemed more in line with what can be expected from a 36-year-old designated hitter with bad knees. Additionally, the Orioles now have a roster logjam, with four players -- Guerrero, Luke Scott (seventh in the AL in OPS), and the continually promising Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold -- to fill two spots, in leftfield and at DH. Guerrero's presence promises to block the development of Reimold, in particular, who slumped last year after being one of the AL's better rookies in 2009 (in 104 games, he hit .279 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs).

Guerrero, in fact, might have been an extraneous addition, but that is of no concern to MacPhail, for several reasons. One: "I'm living for the day that we have too many good players. That's something we'll happily deal with at the time." Two: "There's no such thing as a bad one-year deal." Indeed even if Guerrero falters, it's only money, and more importantly paid in the short-term, and the Orioles sacrificed no draft picks to sign him -- or any of their other off-season additions, for that matter. That should ensure that their long-term plan for improvement should continue apace, with or without Guerrero.

Mark Reynolds, 3B

Reynolds slugged 44 home runs and stole 24 bases as a 25-year-old Diamondback in 2009, and signed a three-year, $14.5 million extension with the club only last March, so he was not at all expecting to be traded away from Arizona for a couple of relief pitchers during the winter meetings. "I was surprised," he says. "Thought I'd be there a few more years. But I'm excited."

Last season, Reynolds still hit 32 homers, but tried to play though a string of maladies -- first a strained quad, then a concussion, then a lingering late-season hand injury -- that, he says, contributed to his .198 batting average, which ranked him 148th among 149 qualified players. In September, he mustered four hits, all singles, in 60 at-bats. "I'll be smarter about managing my injuries this year, take days off, listen to my body more, not be stubborn," he says. "I'm not a .198 hitter. If I was, I wouldn't be in the big leagues."

Reynolds, the major league strikeouts leader in each of his three full seasons (and the occupier of the top three spots on the all-time single-season strikeout list) is not a .300 hitter, either, but the Orioles didn't acquire him for that. They acquired him for his prodigious power, and that is what they ought to receive, particularly as they play in a ballpark (Oriole Park at Camden Yards) that last year ranked as the fifth-easiest place in the majors in which to hit a home run, and in a division that includes two other stadiums in the top five. "Camden, I was there for our FanFest, and it's pretty little out there," he says, happily. "I can definitely miss some balls a little bit and still get it out of there, you know?" The Orioles know.

Chris Tillman, SP

Tillman -- a centerpiece, along with Jones, of the now famous 2008 trade that sent Erik Bedard from Baltimore to Seattle -- is one of those pitching prospects who seems as if he's been written off before he's actually provided much reason to be written off. Baseball America ranked him as the game's 22nd-best prospect before the 2009 season, but a difficult start to his major league career -- after 23 starts split between 2009 and '10, he's 4-10 with a 5.61 ERA -- has rendered him something of a forgotten man.

He shouldn't be considered as such. Though he is usually lumped in with the Orioles' other young starters, including his friend and spring training locker neighbor Brian Matusz (who went 7-3 with a 3.63 ERA in 2010's second half and finished tied for fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting) and Jake Arrieta, he is, at 22, more than a year younger than Matusz and two years younger than Arrieta, and still has plenty of time to gain big league traction. Tillman's problem as a major leaguer thus far has been a lack of consistent confidence in his pitches, which has translated to a timidity as far as putting them over the plate: In his 11 starts last season, he only once threw more than two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. That resulted in, among other things, 31 walks in 53.2 innings, or 5.2 per nine innings -- a walk rate far above his minor league average of 3.5 per nine.

Tillman's best start in 2010 -- and the only game in which he threw more than two times as many strikes as balls -- was his final one, a seven-inning, three-hit, one-run effort against the Tigers on Oct. 1. This seems to have been when Showalter's overarching message to his pitchers -- "I want them to trust their stuff, understand what makes them sleep at night"-- finally got through to him. "Buck says, go out there and show 'em what you've got," Tillman says. "Here it is, hit it, you know?" Tillman is this spring battling to be the Orioles' fourth or fifth starter, behind Jeremy Guthrie, Matusz and Arrieta, and if he can build upon his final outing of 2010, he will be a very good one.

Wieters, baseball's top prospect heading into 2009, has been something of a disappointment offensively during his first two seasons -- he has, over 226 games, hit .266 with 20 home runs and 98 RBIs -- and this year he is set on changing that, even while playing the game's most demanding position. Showalter, however, has no complaints about his young catcher, whom he considers extremely advanced. "I told him, you get four at-bats a night, and you make 100 or 200 decisions behind the plate," Showalter says. "You do the math. What's more important?"... A man was quietly watching the Orioles conduct drills the other day, and introduced himself to other fans as Kent. As it turned out, he was Kent Conrad, since 1986 a Democratic U.S. Senator from North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and not only an inveterate Orioles supporter but, he joked, a future team member (he plans to retire from government next year). "I'm trying out tomorrow to be a 62-year-old, 13th-inning lefty reliever," said Conrad, who is right-handed.

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