Putting the ‘O’ Back in Expectations

March 29, 2011 | Thyrl Nelson

As spring slowly begins to unfold in all of its glory and the NCAA basketball tournament heads inevitably toward its conclusion, the harbingers of baseball season are now all present and accounted for. And while the excitement and enthusiasm that are inherent to this time of year begin once again invading our sports consciousness, it’s fair to say that from an O’s fan’s perspective at least, this particular brand of enthusiasm is different than in recent seasons past. It’s different because in addition to the simple excitement that we typically draw from the beginning of another potentially historic Major League Baseball season, O’s fans, for the first time in a long time can actually look forward with encouragement and anticipation that their team will be playing a brand of baseball worth watching and talking about throughout this campaign.

It’s hard to say whether 13 straight losing seasons have left fans more or less realistic about the team’s chances to be competitive this year. Cynics will say that we’ve heard this all before and to no real avail, and will doubt the potential of a number of key players to remain healthy throughout the season, holding back their enthusiasm. Others, perhaps buoyed by a sheer desire to believe that things have to get better at some point, will point to the marked improvement the team made in their brief stint under Buck Showalter last season, and the seemingly significant talent boost from last year’s team to this as easy reasons for encouragement.

So which category do I fall into? Put me firmly (and conveniently) in the middle.

As the off-season unfolded and the O’s seemingly made improvement after improvement, I like the cynics I spoke of above felt a reluctance to buy in. However, when I sat down a month or so ago, and looked position by position at the AL East, I found it tough to argue the O’s potential. Here is that comparison.

In addition to the merits of their own off-season work, the O’s fortunes are certain to be molded by the collective work of their divisional contemporaries too. It seems pretty clear that the Red Sox are markedly improved from last season to this, add to that the brand of competitive baseball they managed to maintain throughout most of last season despite a slew of injuries and disappointments, and it’s hard not to look at them as likely winners of the AL East, or the AL overall for that matter. The Yankees and Rays are both left licking their proverbial wounds to some degree after this off-season, but much like the improvement of the Red Sox, I think the anticipated impact of the respective demises of the Yankees and Rays may also have been greatly overstated going into this season.

I expect the Red Sox to win the AL East, somewhat easily as long as they can remain relatively healthy. I’d also expect that despite the fact that they have an encouraging young array of talent themselves, the Blue Jays will run away with last place in the division. As for the remaining three, nothing would surprise me. It could be a real dogfight for 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the division this year.

If the O’s can remain relatively healthy (110+ games from Roberts & Lee) and develop some of their budding young talent in the process (Wieters & Matusz especially) I’m stuck on the notion of 85 wins (or between 84-86). With the way that the Yanks and Rays are looking now, I think that could be second place in the division this year. If second in the East creeps as high as 90 or more wins, I think the Yanks or Rays have a far better chance at getting there than Baltimore. My best guess is that it won’t though, and that the wildcard will likely come from the AL Central this season.

Of course any team is capable of making another move or two to get some talent before the trade deadline, if that team is the O’s it’ll be a summer to remember (one way or another). For now I’ll expect to be still talking interestedly about the O’s if and when NFL camps begin near the summer’s end. I’ll call that progress, and for now I’ll call .500 a success, but that success is relative to this season only and where they go from there is still anyone’s guess.

Do the 1-year answers in Lee and Guerrero position the O’s to make legitimate runs at Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or any other potential free agent at season’s end? Would a good showing through June compel them to look into prospective free agents before we get to the off-season?  Or are those 1-year contracts a sneaky way of creating “artificial depth” in the minors this season?

Andy MacPhail’s stated goals from day one included stocking the farm system and developing the talent therein. While their have been encouraging byproducts of that effort evidenced on the Major League roster, the team found themselves taken to task this winter by various media outlets over the now bare cabinet that their farm system had quickly become. Surely the relegation of Nolan Reimold to AAA (by way of the Guerrero acquisition) makes that picture a little more robust. Although the Duscherer signing didn’t quite work out that well, if it had allowed the team to begin the season with either Tillman, Arrieta or both in the minors along with Britton and Josh Bell who were expected to be there…well suddenly the cabinet doesn’t look quite as bare as had been stated previously.

For my money, before they play a single game, the O’s have earned my enthusiasm once again. Let’s face it, as a 38-year old O’s fan, successful seasons in my lifetime have been few and far between. No matter how this plays out, I get the sense that the front office (as best they could) is trying to appease the fans with a competent Major League product, even if it’s contrary to what they’re doing in building toward the future. To that end I am already satisfied. The real questions for me, will be answered on draft day, and through the trading deadline if the O’s begin this year either much better or worse than expected, and perhaps most importantly in free agency.

The April schedule is brutal, if the O’s simply survive it near .500 I’ll be even more encouraged than I am right now…for now. Becoming a sustainable contender going forward is still tough to picture from here though, especially in this division.