Orioles Down to 25-Man Limit

Today is a day that was anticipated by some and dreaded by others. Final cuts were made to get down to the 25-man limit today. Backup catcher Craig Tatum was optioned to AAA Norfolk and Brendan Harris was sent to the minor-league camp. The third name was one that O’s fans were hoping to not see, but unfortunately saw anyway.

Top pitching prospect Zach Britton will start the season in Norfolk along with Tatum. A stellar spring of 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on the big league roster for opening day. This won’t be the last we hear of Britton this year for sure and I’m not referring to the impressive numbers he’s sure to put up in AAA. We’ll just have to be patient to see his name on the Camden Yards scoreboard.

Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman will break from camp part of the squad. One will likely get the start this Sunday. Buck’s keeping us in the dark a bit longer on that one it seems. Due to the off days scheduled early in the season the Orioles won’t need a fifth starter till April 10th, so which ever doesn’t start Sunday should get the ball that day.

The feel good story of this year’s spring training had to be Jake Fox. After being acquired last June in a trade from Oakland he struggled to find playing time and came into this spring as a long shot to make the team. That long shot turned into reality today as he found out he will serve as the team’s backup catcher.

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Rotation Taking Shape

On Thursday we learned what the Orioles rotation will look like to start the season, well part of it anyway. Despite an up and down spring Jeremy Guthrie, to no one’s surprise, will start the opener this Friday against Tampa Bay. It will be the third time in the last four years Guthrie will get the ball to get the season started.

24 year-old left-hander Brian Matusz will get the start on Saturday and second-year starter Jake Arrieta will get the ball on Monday in the home opener against Detroit. On starting in front of the home fans Arrieta said, “Everybody’s going to be excited for the 2011 season. I plan on going out there and showing them what we’re capable of doing this year.”

The spot for Sunday’s game is still up in the area and Showalter is believed to be deciding between Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, and top pitching prospect Zach Britton. Britton took an interesting approach to the news that he’s still in contention for starting the season in the rotation, “Obviously I don’t have the experience of the other guys, but I haven’t had the opportunity. Until I get that chance, I’m always going to be the guy without experience.” His time of no longer getting that chance will almost certainly end this season, it’s just a matter of when. Even if he’s not on the opening day roster there aren’t many that believe that he won’t be called up at some point this season.

Due to continued soreness in the hip he had off-season surgery on, it looks like Justin Duchscherer will start the season on the DL. That would give two of the three starters listed above with a shot at being in the rotation, atleast for a short time. The hope is that Justin will be back towards the end of April to take over as the fifth starter.

There’s still a few days left for Showalter to brainstorm about the remaining pieces to his rotation puzzle, but we’ve got more of an idea of what it will look like than we had a week ago. With the injury track record of Duchscherer I would imagine that this won’t be the only time this season we’ll hear about someone filling in for his spot in the rotation so the shuffling may not be completely over yet.

Bucking at the Competition

Buck Showalter’s comments in the April edition of Men’s Journal have been public for about two weeks now and the backlash continues to pour in. Was he right? Was he out of line? Were they taken out of context? I’m going to go with “Yes” to the first one, “No” to the second, and “I highly doubt it” to the last one. Maybe he was trying to deflect some of the attention off of his team and onto himself. Afterall, there has been alot of optimism around the Birds this spring and getting the media to talk about him and less about the players might let the guys calm down and relax a bit.

When speaking on Derek Jeter he said, “He’s always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets — and yes, he [ticks] me off.” Later in the interview he spoke on Theo Epstein, general manager of the Red Sox, and had this to say, “”I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay [Rays] payroll. You got Carl Crawford ’cause you paid more than anyone else, and that’s what makes you smarter? That’s why I like whipping their butt. It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?”

I’ve always thought, in appearance and even some mannerisms, Buck kind of reminded me of Earl Weaver. Well now he’s given me another reason to think it. Earl hated losing more than anything. Buck does too, almost to the same extent. And what have the Orioles not done since 1997? That was the last year they finished above .500. Over a decade of futility plus a manger who doesn’t like to lose generally don’t mix well. He’s tired of the Orioles being considered a doormat for the Yankees, Red Sox, and all of the American League for that matter.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Andy MacPhail didn’t have any problem with the comments and felt like it would be out of the news in a few days. Normally conservative, I was expecting him to revert to a “no comment” stance, but to my surprise he didn’t. On the second part he’s right. By the time the season starts this will all be forgotten. Will it be brought up again the first time the O’s play the Red Sox and Yankees? I would be shocked if it didn’t. To be honest, I don’t think it registered anything above a 2 on the Richter scale at either Red Sox or Yankees camp, and it really shouldn’t. It should register a 10 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota though.

If last season’s sampling after Showalter took over is any indication of what fans have to look forward to, then maybe the bullying is over. A 34-23 record and respectable 6-6 against the Yankees and Red Sox after his arrival sounds pretty good to anyone who’s followed the Orioles recently. It looks even better when you look at the fact the O’s are 68-116 against the Red Sox and 62-122 against the Yankees the last 10 years. Baltimore travels to New York for the first time this season on April 12th and the first game against Boston is a few weeks later, on the 26th so we don’t have long to wait to see what effect Buck’s comments have on this year’s fortunes against the bitter AL East rivals.

Was the end to last year a result of people playing to keep their jobs or the start of a new era in Camden? Probably a little of both, with more of the later. I’ve been a believer in Andy MacPhail and, from what I’ve seen so far, I think Buck Showalter has was it takes to usher in a new era here. It won’t happen overnight, but small success leads to big success, and for a town starved for success any at all is welcome.

Guthrie Looks Ready for Opening Day

Jeremy Guthrie made a start today against Minnesota Twins minor leaguers and, by all accounts, looked sharp. In six innings he gave up one run on four hits, struck out four, and walked none. Of his 82 pitches, 56 went for strikes. It seems weird for me to say that a start against minor league players was important for the likely opening day starter for the O’s, but it was. The last time Guthrie had a record over .500 was back in 2007 when he went 7-5. Since then, he’s gone 10-12, 10-17, and 11-14. With this year’s rotation looking set to to include many of the young arms of the O’s future, Guthrie’s job as “staff ace” could be more important than ever.

Although Buck Showalter still has not yet officially named his starter for Opening Day in Tampa, the consensus around Sarasota is that it will be Jeremy Guthrie once again. With only one more possible start before the season starts April 1st, today was his next-to-last last chance to fine tune mechanics and make sure everything is right before games matter for real. His previous start before this one was against Boston Red Sox minor leagues, so for two straight starts he’s faced minor league bats and talent to end the spring.

After last season’s turn around under Showalter, I’m going to trust his call on this one. Personally I’d like to see the potential opening day starter facing major league bats to get ready, but I understand building his confidence also. Guthrie had this to say after today’s start, “I was working on the execution of pitches, working on a couple of sequences. I felt a lot better today. I felt strong throughout the outing.” After his last start, these were encouraging words, so I’ll take it.

In his last start against Red Sox minor leaguers he noticeably got tired towards the end of his day, and that’s when he started to get knocked around a bit. His stamina appears to be getting better, which could be key with a revamped bullpen and a starting rotation around him that’s short on major league experience, which could lead to some taxing on the middle relievers at various points throughout the season. He will be needed to go 7+ innings on most nights, a number he came very close to last season. In 32 starts he threw 209.1 innings an average of 6.5 inning per start.

In his interview with Lisa Kerney in MLB Network’s Orioles season preview Guthrie talked about “using all four of his pitches this season and not just relying on two or three, as well as being aggressive within the strike zone so he’s working ahead more in the count to put hitters at a disadvantage” when he was asked what he had been working on this spring training. He also addressed his role as leader/mentor as the veteran of the rotation. Signs are pointing to Guthrie having a good season and being the leader Buck Showalter needs him to be. Let’s hope spring success turns into regular season success.

30 Clubs in 30 Days: Baltimore Orioles

Yesterday, MLB Network’s tour of all 30 major league team spring training sites stopped in Sarasota where they previewed the upcoming season for the O’s. The hour long special was hosted by Paul Serevino, with Lisa Kerney reporting, and Dan Plesac & John Hart as the analysts.

One overwhelming theme was the influence of Buck Showalter. On Showalter, Hart said “There used to be a time when the Oriole Way really meant something. I see that coming back with Showalter.” To anyone who has followed the history of the Orioles, that means something. A team with a tradition rich history has not left fans with much worth remembering for the past decade, but when Showalter took over for Juan Samuel last July things turned around and wins followed. After his arrival the O’s went 34-23, which was the best record among A.L. East clubs over that span.

Both Hart and Plesac were quite complimentary of the key components of the lineup in Roberts, Jones, Markakis, and Wieters. Roberts was labeled as “the key to the lineup”. Hart sees Jones as a 20 homer guy with .300 potential. Hart also spoke of Markakis as the face of the franchise, who should be a consistent .300 hitter.

I was fortunate enough to be at Camden Yards on May 29, 2009 when Matt Wieters made his much anticipated debut. The television stations and radio stations were almost drooling. From the moment it was announced earlier that day, the game (which previously wasn’t announced as being a sellout) sold out. The feel around the stadium was electric. As he walked to the plate for the first time the theme to the movie “The Natural” played over the loud speakers. No pressure at all though, not in the least. When speaking about Wieters Hart cautioned us all to temper our expectations just a bit, atleast for now. He mentioned that his vast offensive potential will be reached, but for now his defense and handling a young pitching staff were his main priorities.

On the pitching staff he had extra praise for Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton. On Arrieta he said, “This is a big, strong, physical kid with pluses all across the board.” When it came to Britton his praise was just as high, “All the things you want to see young pitchers do, this kid does it. At worst, he’s going to be a middle-of-rotation starter and could go as high as number two in a rotation.”

The consensus at the end of the show was that they saw the Orioles as a .500 team this year, which would be a 15 win improvement over last year’s 66-96 record. I would tend to agree as the offense should be much improved and should score enough runs to give the young starters a bit more leeway on the days they don’t have their best stuff. It should be a fun season as the optimism around town is higher than it’s been in a while. I’d be happy with a 15 win increase and I think, inside, most O’s fans would be as well.

For those of you who missed the show, here are links to a few segments via MLB Network.

Nick Markakis discusses the impact of Buck Showalter

Jeremy Guthrie talks about how to make 2011 better than 2010

Matt Wieters’ expectations for this year’s pitching staff

Derrek Lee on his new team

O’s crush the much hated Nats

It’s only spring training, but we gotta take ’em where we get ’em. The O’s demolished the arch-nemesis known as the Washingtonal Nationals today by a comfortable 11-3 margin. The tease we all know as Daniel Cabrera went a strong 5.1 innings. Cabrera struck out 5 and walked a mere 1 batter. He ran out of gas in the 6th and gave up a two-run homer. So it’s time to ask that blasted question “Is this the season that it all clicks for Cabrera?” After last season, I’ve written him off as a wash. When he’s good, he’s good….but when he’s bad, ooooooh my is he bad. Maybe Krantiz is the guy he needs as a pitching coach. But his past two pitching coaches have been Ray Miller and Leo Mazzone, neither are known as the Terry Crowley of pitching coaches. No more excuses for Cabrera, if it doesn’t work this season, it’s time for this rollercoaster love/hate relationship to end.

A few odds and ends

-Luke Scott hit a 2 run homer today.

-Adam Jones hit 2 doubles today.

-Scott Moore is batting a hefty .556 this spring.

-Rocky Cherry has a 0.00 ERA thus spring. If  he keeps this up, he might force his way into the bullpen.

-Melvin Mora has a .455 average. If he does this during the season, some team might actually take that contract.

-Steve Trachsel has a 6.92 ERA this spring. He best not start on opening day.

-Radhames Liz has been sent to Minor League camp. I’m not upset over this. Macphail and Trembley are showing that they’re not rushing the kids to be on the big club just for the sake of being there. Liz’ll be back and he’ll be better when he is.

-Jim Hoey is sidelined indefinately with biceps tendinitis in his right arm.

Another step in the right direction

The O’s have started doing something else that makes sense. A lot of teams have been doing this for awhile, so its kind of embarrassing that it’s taken the Orioles this long to do this. With a team this young and green, having retired O’s come in and work them makes too much sense not to. Rick Dempsey, BJ Surhoff, Mike Cuellar, and Scott McGregor know a thing or two about baseball and anything they pass off onto the newbies can only help.

There were a few notable absences. Boog Powell is busy, but looks forward to doing it next season and during this season if needed. Mike Bordick is busy coaching. Cal Ripken, Jr is a very busy man and couldn’t work it in, but was very happy to be asked and looks forward to helping in any way he can if it can be worked out. Brooks Robinson doesn’t have the time and he’s probably alittle disappointed after being turned down down over the years.

It’s just another one of those small things Andy MacPhail is doing to get the franchise back on track. The O’s have been on the skids for the past ten years and you have to focus on getting the players who can help you on the field. That said, you also have to focus on the small things to help too. Embracing your winning tradition and bringing in your greats to help coach during Spring Training is one of those small things that the previous regimes have for, whatever reason, ignored.

Its a step in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go.