The Orioles were almost everyone's last-place pick in easily baseball's toughest division, yet entering play on Wednesday they are one of only three unbeaten teams in baseball, along with the Rangers and Reds, and sit atop the American League East. Which means there is already a lot of re-evaluation happening by baseball scouts, writers and competing executives.
The O's themselves aren't quite as shocked to be 4-0. Their young pitchers helped them to the American League's second-best record (behind only the Twins) after August 3 last year, and they give them hope again this year -- even if almost no one else saw it that way.
"They're not a flash in the pan,'' Orioles president Andy MacPhail said by phone in answer to a question about whether Baltimore can contend with all its inexperienced pitchers. "If our starting pitchers pitch the way they did the last two months and the first four games, of course we'll be a contender.''
That's a big "if,'' of course, considering the Orioles are employing four pitchers 25 or younger in their rotation: Jake Arrieta, 25; Brian Matusz, currently on the shelf with an intercostal strain, 24; Zach Britton, 23; and Chris Tillman, 22.
It isn't just MacPhail and manager Buck Showalter who are starting to believe those starters are nearly ready to shoulder that burden of leading the O's into the playoff hunt. One National League scout said he believes Britton is even better than the Yankees' ballyhooed wunderkind Manuel Banuelos, who at only 20 generally earned the biggest raves in spring and may make it to the bigs this year. Another scout rated lefthanders Britton and Matusz as potential top-of-the-rotation starters while suggesting that power arms Arrieta and Tillman were likely to settle in as middle-of-the-rotation guys, Tillman's six innings of no-hit pitching against the perennial upstart Rays in his seasonal debut notwithstanding.
Matusz, with 40 career starts, has the most experience of the quartet and has been considered a future star. Arrieta, according to one scout, has "all the pitches'' but needs to be a bit more consistent with his location. Tillman has a nice repertoire but a scout worried that his over-the-top style can make his fastball straight. Britton has a deadly late-action sinker, especially if he can learn to take another 3-to-4 mph off his changeup. They should all benefit under the guidance of veteran pitching coach Mark Connor, long Showalter's right-hand man, and bullpen coach Rick Adair, himself a successful former pitching coach with the Mariners.
"Britton might end up being better than Matusz,'' another scout said, echoing praise that was heard throughout Florida about the young lefthander who had a great spring before being optioned to Triple-A before but then summoned to the majors after Matusz's injury came to light (Matusz is expected to be out at least three weeks). The Orioles originally sent Britton out in part to set back his free-agent eligibility, but had to promote him when Matusz joined the perpetually injured veteran Justin Duchscherer among starting pitchers in sick bay. "He should be pretty good,'' MacPhail said of Britton.
The whole team might be better than most of us thought. Part of the under-rating of the O's was due to the fact that they haven't had a winning record since 1997, while some of it was caused by a so-so spring when they were ravaged by injury. Only twice this spring did Showalter have his full complement of everyday players at his disposal, so the team didn't show its true potential. The spring absences of Brian Roberts, who missed time with a back problem but already has two home runs in the regular season, may have camouflaged Baltimore's abilities. While their lineup isn't as star-studded as those of the Yankees or Red Sox, the winter moves to acquire three other infielders to go with Roberts -- veteran first baseman Derrek Lee, who was also hurt much of spring, plus shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds -- should help.
The most vital move, though, has been the hiring of Showalter, a take-no-guff veteran whose arrival late last summer coincided with as stark a turnaround as possible. The Orioles had baseball's worst record when he took over and its third-best record afterward. "I don't think there's any question things changed the moment (Showalter) walked through the door,'' MacPhail said.
Showalter was known to be extremely talented but his hiring was seen as a bit of a gamble after a couple bad breakups. One competing executive, who called it a "high risk, high reward hire,'' praised the move, saying only Showalter or Bobby Valentine would have been right for an organization in need of an overhaul. Showalter espoused a complete change in the way things were done in his characteristically gutsy interview, and oft-criticized hands-on owner Peter Angelos and MacPhail should be credited for taking the needed chance. Some see the buttoned-down MacPhail and Showalter, who has shown some Machiavellian tendencies in the past, as baseball's oddest couple, but it's proving to be a perfect match. "We needed a guy who would be all in,'' MacPhail said. "He's a 24-7 guy.''
They also needed someone who'd make the players take notice. "The credibility level is a little bit different,'' MacPhail said. Showalter is the right fit for a young and talented clubhouse that needed a push. Angelos is said to have wanted Showalter, who spent time as an ESPN analyst, after watching him on TV, but MacPhail disputed the perception that Angelos needed to nudge him away from another candidate, Eric Wedge, and toward Showalter. MacPhail said that both he and Angelos concluded they needed someone with experience and credibility. MacPhail's top list of Showalter, Wedge and Bobby Valentine became two after Valentine withdrew, and while MacPhail admired the solid Wedge, the two Orioles decision-makers ultimately concluded that Wedge just didn't have the "larger than life persona Buck has.''
That persona has grown since turning around the Orioles, and it will continue to grow if Showalter can somehow keep Baltimore anything close to a threat in the American League East.
• Dodgers owner Frank McCourt has an uphill battle to keep the Dodgers. He needs $200 million he doesn't currently have to settle his divorce case and remove ex-wife Jamie from the picture. McCourt apparently could get that money in advance from Fox on a new TV deal, but he needs commissioner Bud Selig's approval for such a move, and there is little evidence that Selig or many of the other 29 owners want him to remain in baseball. But McCourt is a scrapper, and he's also litigious, so he can't be completely ruled out. The McCourt case is being watched with great interest by several other owners who have seemed intrigued by its soap operatic quality and almost unseemly details about the McCourts' over-the-top lavish lifestyle considering they aren't among baseball's richest owners.
• One scout said about young Cubs star Starlin Castro, "He looks ridiculous at the plate, he's so good.'' That scout said Castro is reminiscent of Marlins' All-Star Hanley Ramirez. "He's going to get bigger and stronger. He might have to move of shortstop, but his bat plays.'' That's what they said about Hanley, too.
• Ramirez, by the way, is hustling hard for Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez. Good sign.
• The Rangers appear to have more hitting than anyone, so much, in fact, that they could afford to trade Michael Young if they could get back a viable starting pitcher or closer (in that case, they could move Neftali Feliz into the rotation). Several teams could use Young, as many need either a second baseman or third baseman. The Phillies, Cubs, Marlins and Rockies all look like they could use one or the other. Ruben Amaro was quoted on Tuesday as saying Utley may start jogging soon, but he seemed to refute that later. in any case, Utley's progress seems painfully slow and whatever progress he is having shouldn't discourage Philly from pursuing a second baseman. In the meantime, Wilson Valdez looks better than a healthy Utley defensively but ultimately won't give them the offense they need.
• The Marlins will likely need a third baseman unless Donnie Murphy can prove to be more than a utilityman. Murphy had a walk-off hit Tuesday, two days after being nailed on the right hand by a pitch. Future star Matt Dominguez's broken elbow may not keep him out as long as first suspected, but he still needs plenty more at-bats in the minors to be ready to face major league pitching.
• Bronson Arroyo continued his streak of never missing a start when he went to the mound for the Reds with mononucleosis, pitching seven innings in a win. Don't let the long hair and guitar playing fool you; this is one of the toughest guys in baseball. "He's like the [Cal] Ripken of pitchers,'' one scout said, admiringly.
• Scott Kazmir's status with the Angels may well be tenuous after he followed up a poor 2010 by surrendering five hits and five earned runs while getting just five outs in his season debut.
• Aaron Rowand couldn't be released by the Giants to make room for top rookie Brandon Belt because the Giants needed a backup center fielder on the roster to start the year. But once Cody Ross returns, they won't need one, possibly putting Rowand, who makes $12 million a year, in potential jeopardy of being let go.
• Candid Twins closer Joe Nathan admitted he isn't 100 percent, saying he's throwing 92, which is about 3-to-4 mph off his usual figure. While that may not seem like a big deal, Nathan admitted it's significant. On the plus side, it's only been 13 months since his Tommy John surgery, the 92 mph is six mph more than his readings of two months ago, and he said he feels good.
• Tsuyoshi Nishioka seemed to have an early case of the jitters, according to people close to the Twins. But the strong belief is that Nishioka will settle down and be one of baseball's more productive second basemen.
• Jim Thome, 40, who is 11 home runs from 600, isn't suggesting this will be his last year. "Why not keep going as long as you can do it?'' he said.
• Thome said he believes the Red Sox's young starter Clay Buchholz will someday win a Cy Young award.
• One scout said the Pirates' Charlie Morton, 2-12 last year, looks terrific, that he was throwing 96 with really impressive sink. "He's always had really good stuff,'' that scout said.
• Mets starter Chris Young, at $1.5 million guaranteed, may turn out to be the best signing of the offseason. Even before his successful debut vs. the rival Phillies, one scout said of Young, "He's pitching like he did when he was at his best.''
• David Wright looks absolutely terrific at bat. And Jose Reyes is running as well as he has in years. That may be great timing for the free-agent-to-be.
• Mets GM Sandy Alderson said it's unlikely Jason Bay will be back Saturday when he's eligible to come of the disabled list from that popular intercostal, and he may actually need a couple weeks. It isn't expected to be a long-term injury but he isn't able to swing a bat yet.
• One scout who saw Daniel Murphy in spring training said the Mets are wasting him, that they should have given him more innings in the outfield in camp to give them another spot to play him. "Murphy can really hit'' if given the opportunity, the scout said.
• The Mets are trying something unusual this year, deploying more scouts to the minors and using no scouts primarily to scout the majors. As a few other teams do, they also use video for advance scouting and presumably will rely more heavily on stats when considering trades involving major leaguers.
• Former No. 1 pick Andrew Cashner looked superb in his first start, but Cubs people have to be a bit concerned after he left with what was described as shoulder "tightness.''
• The Rangers' Brandon Webb, who hit three batters while pitching batting practice, admitted, "It went bad.'' Some are starting to question whether he'll ever get back in an actual game.
• Brewers people are encouraged by Zack Greinke's progress, and GM Doug Melvin said he's looking for Greinke to debut by the second homestand. It's been a rough start for the Brewers, who are dreaming of the World Series but lost their first four games before Yovani Gallardo's two-hit 1-0 shutout win over the Braves earned them their first win on Tuesday.
• Meanwhile, the Rangers' Nelson Cruz became the third player to homer in his first four games in a season, joining Willie Mays (1971) and Mark McGwire (1998). So legitimately, he's the second.
• One scout of the anointing of the Red Sox in the preseason, "I think people underestimated the Yankees.''
• Yankees GM Brian Cashman looks right about signing veteran catcher Russell Martin. Scouts were skeptical of Martin this spring, but he has looked great early.
• Joe Girardi must really must not want to use Jorge Posada to catch at all considering he said only that Posada "might'' be ahead of Eduardo Nunez on the catching depth chart. The Yankees are carrying Gustavo Molina, a catcher they seem to want to avoid using in any capacity. Meanwhile, Posda already looks comfortable in the DH role.
• One scout said he has real worries about Boston's Josh Beckett due to poor fastball location.
• A Red Sox person said they weren't concerned yet about Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who went 0-for-10 with five strikeouts to open the season against his old team, the Rangers. Word is, he has until June to prove he belongs as the starting catcher.