Despite strong finish, Orioles still look outmanned in AL East
TAMPA -- Ex-Yankees manager Buck Showalter and his Orioles team left George Steinbrenner Field here with a 10-0 defeat Wednesday, which is not only a reminder of how things have been but could also be a portent of things to come this year, as well.
The young Orioles, responding to the tough task master Showalter, finished a stunning 34-23 last year, rescuing them from the embarrassment of baseball's worst record though also costing themselves the No. 1 draft choice this June. Their surprising finish and a decent winter -- when they imported some nice pieces to rebuild an infield, enhance a lineup and improve a bullpen --improved expectations for the coming season.
But it's clear not everyone is convinced. "Just because they got (shortstop) J.J. Hardy and (third baseman) Mark Reynolds, that doesn't make them a winner,'' one American League scout said, dismissively.
The initial impact from Showalter's arrival could fade, and it's hard for most to imagine the Orioles carrying that strong finish to make a dent in baseball's best division. The enhanced infield, which also includes first baseman Derrek Lee, who was signed as a free agent, looks good on paper, but star holdover second baseman Brian Roberts (back) continues to be hampered by injuries and Lee (wrist) also has been slowed this spring.
Hardy and Lee particularly have made a positive impression on team higherups. But hardly anyone outside the organization takes the Orioles seriously yet. And for good reason. Their pitching possesses potential but looks a little short in that division. "A lot short,'' one scout corrected.
Their de facto ace is Jeremy Guthrie, who had a big finish last year, has logged 400 innings the last two years and provides a decent anchor. Though one person who knows Guthrie said, "He's 38-48 and walks around like he's got three Cy Young awards.''
Joining Guthrie in a thin rotation will be a pair of up and comers, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, who's solidified a spot with a decent spring (2-0, 4.00). But after that, it's anyone's guess. Lefty Zach Britton, the team's top prospect, looks like a Matusz clone, only maybe better, and has yet to allow a run this spring in nine innings. But to take him North would risk beginning his fee-agent clock earlier than ownership probably would like in a year when they aren't expected to contend.
Veteran righthander Justin Duchscherer was expected to be in the rotation but is very unlikely to be ready after the latest in a long history of nagging injuries, perhaps opening the door a slither for the talented Britton. Duchscherer remains much like Rich Harden, a pitcher who looks good in the imagination
The everyday team isn't half bad but will still be hard-pressed to outscore the opposition. Vladimir Guerrero, another free-agent signing, had a good bounceback year for Texas, with 29 home runs and 115 RBIs, but slumped in the second half. Catcher Matt Wieters had a so-so sophomore season last year, batting .249 with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs, but is expected to be a star, and the outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Luke Scott, with Nolan Reimold as a potential platoon mate for Scott if Scott's spring struggles continue, should be productive. Scott is hitting .067 in spring (two for 30) while Reimold is at .443.
The good news is, the bullpen looks solid, especially once Koji Uehara (elbow) returns. There are hopes for the return of Uehara, Roberts and Lee within the next few days. But even at full strength, this team still looks seriously outmanned in its division.
• The Yankees went to scout Kevin Millwood Wednesday at UC-Irvine and are offering a contract in the low seven figures while Millwood has been seeking about $4 million on a major league deal. While he'd be a help, the Yankees may not need him as much as they once did after Ivan Nova threw six no-hit innings in the 10-0 win over the Orioles. Freddy Garcia has pitched well in two of three outings, and he and Nova look likely to be the Yankees' No. 4 and 5 starters.
• Alex Rodriguez looks several pounds lighter and in midseason from already. His home run against the Orioles was his third of the spring.
• Lance Berkman told SI.com of the 2003 steroid list, "I hope it becomes public. As a guy who's clean as a whistle I want to know how I stack up.''
• Chris Carpenter (hamstring) got through his Wednesday outing against the Tigers pain-free, a major relief to the Cardinals, who need him more than ever following Adam Wainwright's season-ending elbow injury. "I was just praying he didn't pull his hamstring,'' Albert Pujols said after Carpenter's performance, which included two fielding plays to test the affected area.
• Pujols hit his first home run of spring, a grand slam off the Tigers' Phil Coke and another shot he pulled 400-plus feet foul, "I feel my hands are too quick right now ... I feel my hands are like lightning.''
• Matt Holliday has been red-hot this spring (.424), and people around the team say he may be even better a year removed from his $120-million, seven-year contract.
• While three competing GMs said they expected the Cardinals to pick up Wainwright's $21 million, two-year option, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said he "hasn't thought about'' that call yet, which has to be made at season's end. Holliday agreed with the three GMs, saying it's a "no-brainer'' to pick it up. I agree.
• One scout noted how "weird'' the Cardinals' defense is, suggesting they have Gold Glove defense at first base, catcher and centerfield but much less than that elsewhere, especially at shortstop, second base and rightfield.
• La Russa argued that Alan Trammell should be in the Hall of Fame, saying he compared to Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. La Russa maintained that the one are where Trammell, a longtime star for the Tigers, falls short is "self-promotion.''
• Nate McLouth is allaying some Braves' fears with a nice start this spring. He's hitting well enough that some Braves people have taken to referring to him as "Pittsburgh Nate,'' to differentiate with how badly he's played since going to Atlanta, where he's batted .229.
• The Braves' starting pitching looks extremely good this spring. Mike Minor appears sure to win the No. 5 job.
• Braves GM Frank Wren said he isn't worried about closer Craig Kimbrel's slow start this spring, suggesting an up-and-down early spring is typical for hard throwers such as Kimbrel.
• Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria isn't happy with the team's eight-game losing streak, telling Marlins' writers it's time for some of the players to "look in the mirror.'' Loria continues to be a Steinbrenner wannabe. Meanwhile one NL scout said he believed the Marlins' defense was improved and that they'd "surprise some people.''
• It has become clear in Mets camp that manager Terry Collins wants Luis Hernandez, he of the lifetime .584 OPS, to win the second base job. With Luis Castillo having a $6 million contract, he remains a slight favorite. Collins isn't seen as the likely one to make the final call. But if Hernandez gets the job, that would be some evidence he has more power than folks think.
• Best to Braves coach Luis Salazar, who unfortunately lost an eye after being hit by a liner off the bat of Brian McCann. Salazar is expected to otherwise make a full recovery.
• Condolences to the family of Cardinals great Marty Marion, who died at 93. La Russa made a case for Marion to be in the Hall of Fame and remarked it's a shame he won't be alive if he is ever inducted.