By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun
8:21 PM PDT, March 30, 2013
The message on the black T-shirts that Orioles players have often worn around the clubhouse during spring training speaks volumes. It highlights their belief that last year's sudden success -- in which the Orioles shocked baseball and returned to the postseason for the first time in 15 years -- wasn't a fluke, but just a beginning.
"To Be Continued ... " the shirts, provided by center fielder Adam Jones, say in orange lettering.
Some of the Orioles' achievements during last year's magical season will be nearly impossible to duplicate -- the 16 straight extra-inning wins and the 29-9 record in one-run games -- and that's why most baseball experts don't believe the club can keep winning.
But that's just fine with these Orioles.
"We're back lying in the weeds again, and that's fine," manager Buck Showalter said. "We work pretty good out of the weeds. And I appreciate everyone helping us get back there, whether it be Toronto and what they did in the offseason or it's the national media. All that stuff is short-lived, all that doubting us. Sooner or later, that stuff goes away and the novelty wears off and the issue is, 'Are you good enough?' And last year, we were good enough."
The Orioles return a team mostly intact from last season, when they won 93 games after losing 93 in 2011. They excelled in the face of doubt and believe they can build on a season that ended with the Orioles dropping a decisive Game 5 to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
"The whole entire year was motivating," Jones said. "It was special. I think the way it ended made us hungry. You see the light. You see the good side of this game. Now, we've put ourselves in a gantlet of 162 games in order to do it all over again. We know we have six months ahead of just pure hell because this division hasn't gotten any easier."
When executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette arrived in Baltimore before last season, he set a goal of fielding a .500 team in 2012. Their 24-win improvement far surpassed that and -- coupled with beating the Texas Rangers in the AL wild-card game -- raised the bar.
"Then the next benchmark would be to win the division consistently and field teams that make the playoffs every year," Duquette said. "And one of these times, with some luck in the playoffs, break through with a championship year. That's the idea, and we're making steady progress."
Duquette points to a quote from Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose Rays were one of the teams the Orioles outlasted to make the playoffs last season.
"He said, 'The Orioles used to show up to play. Now they show up to win,'" Duquette said. "That's a cultural shift. I thought that was a nice compliment."
Betting on cohesion
While other AL East teams had busy offseasons, the Orioles enter 2013 without many changes. The team's major move was re-signing outfielder Nate McLouth -- a spark plug last season after being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk in August -- to a one-year, $2million contract. The Orioles allowed first baseman Mark Reynolds and left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders to walk.
That's part of the reason the Orioles, on paper, are a popular choice to regress. A formula for predicting win-loss records based on run differential -- the Pythagorean record -- said the Orioles should have finished 82-80 last season. This year, sabermetricians expect the Orioles bullpen -- which compiled a 3.00 ERA last year, fifth-best in baseball -- to slip.
But the Orioles believe the players the team has assembled, the leadership of those players and the cohesion within the clubhouse can't be measured by statistics.
"I think the team aspect is overlooked quite a bit at this level," said reliever Darren O'Day, who was signed to a two-year, $5.8 million extension this spring with a third-year club option. "You take as much talent as you can, you assemble it and put it together, and see if it works. Sometimes it does and you have a dynasty, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's crash and burn.
"There was a method they had for hand-selecting guys who complemented each other and they knew would be good clubhouse guys. It's tough to explain to an outsider or even to witness, because it's very seamless in here. And a lot of the atmosphere and togetherness and synergy comes from the top and comes from Buck."
O'Day points to the pingpong, bumper billiards and cornhole games in the Orioles' spring training clubhouse. The activities bring players from different corners of the clubhouse together and keep them there past clock-out time.
"Where do you think all this comes from?" O'Day said. "That's all from Buck. He wants us to hang out and be friends. I've stayed here until 4 o'clock playing pingpong before. That's certainly time I'd otherwise be spending sitting on the couch or something."
And Showalter, master motivator that he is, relishes connecting his players with the underdog role. He believes the fact that few are picking the Orioles to reach the playoffs again plays into his hands.
"Conventionally thinking and history and stats and all the other stuff, we made a lot of people scratch their heads last year," Showalter said. "These guys don't get too deep into conventionality. ... Hell, they thought it was a fluke when they didn't win [in the ALDS]. People start thinking [the Orioles' success] was some fluky thing or whatever, that's OK. The way I look at it, it's a little bit of a slap in the face to their ability."
That's why when Showalter jumps into one of the drills in spring training, his players listen. When he tells them to do it again, they jump to it.
"I think the trust factor is huge with us," first baseman Chris Davis said. "Buck trusts us to hold ourselves accountable and to be prepared to play, and we know that if he brings something to us that it's not going to be eyewash. He's going to have researched it and it's going to have a purpose. I think that makes a big difference in the way the players trust each other and the way the manager trusts his players."
Winning a different way
The Orioles don't necessarily believe they're going to win in the same ways as in 2012. Their .763 winning percentage in one-run games was the highest since the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms. They won an AL-best 46 games on the road and had a winning record against every other AL East team.
They hit 214 homers, second-most in baseball, but also went through stretches of horrific clutch hitting. They failed to get a hit with runners in scoring position in 47 games and had just one hit with runners in scoring position in 32 others -- but managed to win 32 of those 79 games.
"I don't think anybody in here thinks that since we made the playoffs last year that we're a shoo-in this year," McLouth said. "We're still hungry to get back there. Buck said earlier in spring training, 'You can't fool anybody for 162 games. You're going to get exposed at some point.' And that's the truth. We didn't make the playoffs by accident last year, but as far as people doubting, no matter what team you're on, there are going to be people who think you're going to be good and people who think you're going to stink."
The Orioles know it will help to have back several key players who missed significant time with injuries last year. Second baseman Brian Roberts, limited to 115 games during the past three years, is healthy again, and left fielder Nolan Reimold, who is coming off neck surgery after playing just 16 games last season, has returned. Right fielder Nick Markakis, who endured a 2012 calendar year that included three surgeries, is back as well. The anticipated June addition of Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada from Tommy John elbow reconstruction should help.
Another factor in the Orioles' confidence is their defense. They called up Manny Machado from Double-A Bowie in early August and made him the everyday third baseman. At the time, they had the worst fielding percentage in baseball (.980), including a horrid .914 fielding percentage by the third basemen. After Machado, primarily a shortstop in the minors, was permanently placed at third on Aug. 9, the Orioles made just 19 errors down the stretch and compiled a majors-best .990 fielding percentage.
It's no accident they also had the best winning percentage from Aug. 1 through the end of the season, going 38-20.
"If our defense is good like it was at the end of the season and our pitchers pitch reasonably, we should be able to continue to evolve as a team," Duquette said.
Youth and depth
The Orioles will have a full season of Machado in 2013, and the organization's other top prospects are on the horizon. Right-hander Dylan Bundy is a consensus top-three prospect in the game, and the Orioles' next two prospects -- right-hander Kevin Gausman and infielder Jonathan Schoop -- raised their stock in their first big league camps.
The Orioles used 52 players last season -- including 32 who made their debut with the team -- but they enter this season with much more depth. Thirteen pitchers competed for the five starting rotation spots this spring, and the Orioles will open the season with several players at Norfolk who have major league experience.
"We're making good strides in our player development operation. We're recruiting better," Duquette said. "We have more work to do to be consistent. But the other thing we have is depth to our major league squad this year in spring training. Last year we went about acquiring depth throughout the season, and this year we seem to have more depth when the season starts. So, hopefully, that will work to help the team."
Showalter loves a maneuverable roster. The Orioles made 178 roster moves last year, and several involved getting fresh relievers on the staff after long extra-inning games. Showalter often has said the organization values every game on the schedule, and it resonates through the clubhouse that every outcome matters.
After ending a memorable season with a close ALDS against the Yankees, in which four of the five games were decided by one or two runs, the Orioles know they can compete with the heavyweights of the AL East. And they don't give any impression that they're satisfied with last season's accomplishments.
"I think the motivation is that we made the postseason last year and lost," Davis said. "We finished the season with a bad taste in our mouths. If that's not motivation enough, I don't know what will be."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun