SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — The face of the Baltimore Orioles has lines around the eyes, is topped with a generous layer of gray hair and often is adorned with a fierce look of intensity.
The face belongs to manager Buck Showalter.
He instilled a long-forgotten sense of optimism into the franchise last year by guiding the last-place Orioles to a 34-23 finish over the final two months. It was an exhilarating accomplishment, and now there is hope his presence in the dugout will enable Baltimore to end a club-record string of 13 straight losing seasons.
Alas, Showalter’s baseball knowledge and leadership skills can only go so far. If the Orioles are to be successful in 2011, the 54-year-old manager can’t do it alone.
“We think our bullpen has a chance to be competitive, but starting pitching and the health of our position players is the key,” Showalter said.
Unfortunately, Baltimore’s starting rotation struggled this spring and was handicapped by the absence of Justin Duchscherer, who was sidelined with a nagging sore hip. Brad Bergesen also took a line drive off his forearm, but that mishap probably won’t keep him off the opening day roster.
Showalter also had to deal with injuries to second baseman Brian Roberts (neck and back) and new first baseman Derrek Lee (wrist and foot).
Roberts and Lee are key figures in an improved lineup. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail broke the budget during the offseason to add power to a team that last season had only two players hit more than 20 homers (Luke Scott and the departed Ty Wigginton).
The home-run potential provided by Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy should offset the team’s lack of speed. Reynolds replaces Wigginton at third base and Hardy is an offensive upgrade at shortstop over Cesar Izturis, whose new role is that of a utility player.
“I like it. I think it’s a legitimate 1-9 lineup,” Roberts said. “There are no weak spots. I feel we can match up with anybody, really, and that’s what you’re looking for — to have the ability to go out, day in and day out, and compete.”
The big question is, can the Orioles get more hits and runs than they surrender within the talented AL East?
“This division is full of tremendous starting pitching, great bullpens and lineups that are All-Star caliber,” Scott said. “We have to match up with them every day on the field, performance-wise. We have pieces of the puzzle where we match up well, and pieces of the puzzle where we may be a little overmatched.”
Baltimore’s starting rotation begins with Jeremy Guthrie, who went 1-2 with a 6.43 in four starts this spring. Left-hander Brian Matusz has limitless potential, but he needed a 6-0 finish to salvage a 10-12 record as a rookie last season and was 0-2 with a 5.93 ERA in five exhibition games this month.
Then comes Brad Bergesen or Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Duchscherer, a former All-Star who completed the last four seasons in the disabled list.
“We don’t have the names in our rotation, but we do have guys that are capable,” Scott said. “We’re going against big-name guys that have experience and they’re polished. Do we have guys that are capable? Yes. Do we guys that have proven they can do it? Yes. As consistently as the other guys? No, not yet. But can they? That’s what we’re hoping.”
Guthrie, the ace of the staff despite his lackluster 38-48 career record, said, “If we don’t pitch well, then we don’t win games.”
The arrival of Showalter last season enabled the Orioles to shed a defeatist attitude and understand how fun it is to win. In an effort to build off that momentum, MacPhail traded for Reynolds and Hardy and signed free agents Guerrero and Lee.
MacPhail’s effort was celebrated by those players who have been a part of that miserable run of losing seasons.
“It’s different,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “How many times did you think that Vladimir Guerrero would be in an Oriole uniform. D Lee? That’s the cool part of this business, you never know where anybody could go, what can happen.”
What’s more, Guerrero and Lee have incentive to play well.
“Everyone knows they’re on one-year deals, so they know if they want to play beyond this year they have to perform,” Jones said. “Those are two veterans who have had great careers, and I don’t know why they’d stop now.”
MacPhail didn’t just load up on bats. Kevin Gregg, who had a career-high 37 saves with Toronto last year, was signed as the closer. And MacPhail re-signed Koji Uehara, who pitched very well in 2010 — when healthy.
“I think we’re going to score a lot of runs,” Hardy said. “I think our pitching staff is young and really good, so I feel like if everyone stays healthy, everyone does what they’re capable of doing, we’re going to open some eyes.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)