Orioles FanFest brings optimism, but questions remain for 2011


Thousands of Orioles fans flocked to the Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday to mentally thaw out from the recent snow and shift their attention to spring and another baseball season.

As is the case every year at this time, the optimistic superlatives were flying from every direction.

Buck Showalter received a standing ovation when introduced to the crowd, proving he’s still the toast of the town — at least in the baseball sense — after leading the Orioles to an uplifting 34-23 record in the final two months of 2010, avoiding the 100-loss mark for a team that appeared destined at the end of July to finish as the worst team in franchise history.

Second baseman Brian Roberts declared himself as healthy as he’s been in two years after missing over 100 games with an injured back and dealing with concussion symptoms that lasted until Christmas.

And numerous players and coaches spoke about the marked improvements in the lineup — and defensively — with the additions of veteran first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds, and shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Some even reminded everyone the Orioles had the best record in the American League East over the season’s final two months and pointed to the lack of expectations, both locally and nationally, as an advantage for the upcoming season.

“That’s the best, to fly under the radar,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Nobody knows what’s going on, but you’re steadily climbing and whipping people’s ass. That’s what I like.”

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The feel-good sentiments are easy to express this time of year, and while the team appears better on paper, doubts remain whether it’s enough improvement to make any tangible difference in the AL East standings where the Orioles, even after the strong finish under Showalter, finished 30 games behind division-winning Tampa Bay.

The signing of an aging Lee and the acquisitions of Hardy and the powerful yet strikeout-prone slugger Reynolds should be significant offensive upgrades over Ty Wigginton, Cesar Izturis (who remains as a utility player), and Josh Bell respectively, but critics point to the club’s failure to sign Victor Martinez and the halfhearted pursuit of Adam Dunn as ammunition that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail (entering the final year of his current contract) is not doing nearly enough to narrow the gap in the rigid AL East.

In fact, much of the discussion at FanFest surrounded a player not even under contract — free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. MacPhail confirmed the club has made an offer to the soon-to-be 36-year-old slugger, but did not sound overly optimistic about reaching an agreement.

“I don’t really get the sense that he is close to [making a decision],” said MacPhail, who claims he’s already exceeded the projected payroll he and majority owner Peter Angelos envisioned at the end of last season. “I don’t know. We never really know exactly the extent of other clubs’ interest in other players, but I don’t get the sense they’re ready to do anything in the very near future.”

Regardless of whether Guerrero signs with the Orioles or spurns them again as he did seven years ago, the biggest factor in determining how much the club can build upon last season’s strong finish is the continued development of the starting rotation, which is projected to feature four of five starters under the age of 26 on Opening Day.

MacPhail maintained his interest in adding a veteran to the rotation, but the team’s success will be measured largely with the steps taken by Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman, Though Matusz’s red-hot finish to last season (7-1, 2.18 ERA in his final 11 starts) clearly headlines the group’s accomplishments, all have taken their lumps to varying degrees over the last two seasons.

Those growing pains must subside if the Orioles are to avoid a 14th consecutive losing season, regardless of how much the offense might improve.

“For us, the biggest key is still going to be our young pitchers, our young starters,” Roberts said. “Even with the [positional] acquisitions, those young guys are going to have to pitch well for us.”

The rotation, anchored by 31-year-old Jeremy Guthrie, will also need to adjust to a new pitching coach as Mark Connor replaces the popular Rick Kranitz. The 61-year-old spent 14 previous seasons under Showalter with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers, serving as pitching coach for 11 of those years.

Connor has wasted no time in getting to know his new pitching staff, watching hours of video from last season while picking out the nuances and makeup of each individual. He also spent time Friday evening getting better acquainted with his pitchers, with Matusz making the strongest impression by approaching the coach first and sitting down with him for nearly 30 minutes to discuss the craft.

“Young players are exciting,” Connor said. “I love working with young players. I’ve had staffs where I’ve had either five guys who were older than me or five guys who were 20. And it’s two different dynamics. It’s fun to watch the kids grow. It’s fun to be around kids that want to learn and don’t think they know it all, because none of us do. The key is going to be keeping these guys healthy really.”

Yes, the excitement was palpable on Saturday as coaches and players discussed what lies ahead and the hopes of continuing the late-season momentum created a year ago.

However, playing winning baseball when you’re already 30 games out is much different than starting fresh against the heavyweights of the division in April when nothing has been decided for anyone.

The Orioles are an improved team, but the measuring stick remains as high as ever.

“I don’t care about the other teams,” Showalter said. “I really don’t. I’m tired of the Red Sox, the Yankees, who cares? They’ll do whatever they do. What every other team did, that’s a given. I don’t care what their payroll is and who they acquired. We’ve got to take care of our business.”

Fighting words for sure, a major reason why fans have taken to the Orioles manager so quickly, but will they be enough when the snow melts, spring arrives, and those teams venture into town for real?