Gone is much of the goodwill the Orioles built up over two strong months under new manager Buck Showalter, as Baltimore once again finds itself tasked with proving it can compete in the tough American League East. All the O's can ask for from a tumultuous 2010 -- which featured three different managers -- is that their surge under Showalter was a precursor of better days ahead -- a chance to snap a skid of 13 consecutive losing seasons.
It won't be easy because, well, it never is when you go up against baseball's two behemoths in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But, with a fresh slate and February's report date inching closer, let's take a look at some of the Orioles' biggest issues heading into the '11 campaign.
10. Where does Nolan Reimold fit into the organization's plans?
Reimold was a pleasant surprise in '09, but his rookie campaign was cut short by a left Achilles injury that, among other things, continued to slow him down last spring and snowballed into a disastrous season. With his name popping up in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, the early word is that Reimold has been working hard with former Oriole Brady Anderson to get things straightened out. Will it be enough to prove that he can be a solid contributor at the Major League level?
9. What will the experience of a full season do for catcher Matt Wieters?
Wieters made significant defensive strides in '10, and arrived last spring with the goal of being able to handle the rigors of a 162-game season. But for a variety of reasons -- be it his pressing or catching too much to start the year -- his offense nosedived, and Wieters finished with a .249 batting average, 11 homers and 55 RBIs in 130 games. The young backstop has shown he can take charge of the Orioles' pitching staff, but the switch-hitter's bat is where the O's would really like to see some improvement. Wieters, along with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, struggled to produce consistently at the plate, and the trio's offensive progress will be pivotal to resuscitating the O's lineup.
8. Will Luke Scott be able to replicate 2010's success?
The O's designated hitter, Scott collected career highs in home runs and proved he can hold his own against left-handed pitching with a solid 4 1/2-month stretch to cap the season. He had a monster August, hitting .314 with nine homers and 20 RBIs, and attributed a lot of his success to playing regularly instead of platooning. Scott's a guy Showalter wants to see in the lineup every day, so there's no reason -- assuming he stays healthy -- to expect him to backslide.
7. Are the young arms ready?
They are going to have to be if the O's are to avoid repeating last season's awful 2-16 start. Offensive upgrades aside, the Orioles' season hinges on the expected progress of Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman. Having Jeremy Guthrie provides stability, and the team wants to add another veteran as well, but the young core has to prove they can be successful for the O's to have any chance at moving forward.
6. Can Mark Reynolds shoulder his share of the offensive load?
The thought is by not putting too much pressure on Reynolds to limit his strikeouts, the young power hitter will flourish in hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Still, there's a lot riding on the new acquisition to augment a lineup that was lifeless for most of last season. If Reynolds can return to his '09 form, it would give the Orioles a huge lift, and go a long way toward taking pressure off the pitching staff.
5. Who will be the Orioles' closer?
Koji Uehara wants to close games, and it was a big factor in his decision to re-sign with Baltimore. Last offseason, the O's inked Michael Gonzalez to do the same. While it's likely to be Uehara -- unless the O's sign another back-end arm -- nothing is set in stone this spring. Showalter loves fostering some competition.
4. Will Brian Roberts stay healthy and productive?
The Orioles need Roberts, and he's said to be completely healthy this offseason. Still, the addition of Brendan Harris and the re-signing of Cesar Izturis set up a contingency plan in the event that Roberts -- who missed nearly all of last season with a back injury -- breaks down physically. A catalyst for the team, expect Roberts' presence to play directly into the Orioles' record, for better or for worse.
3. Where will Zach Britton start the season?
In an ideal world, the Orioles will acquire another veteran starter, forcing Britton -- and perhaps Tillman -- to Triple-A. The O's would like to have starting-pitching depth, and Britton is the only prospect even close to being ready to start in the Major Leagues. A highly touted lefty, Britton will be in contention for the fifth rotation spot this spring, even more so if Baltimore doesn't sign another innings-eater like the departed Kevin Millwood. But, barring an injury or trade, Britton will likely start the season with Norfolk.
2. Is this Andy MacPhail's last season in Baltimore?
While Showalter is signed through '13, MacPhail's contract expires after the '11 season and he has said he has no plans to approach owner Peter Angelos to discuss an extension. MacPhail, the O's president of baseball operations, is not the type to play things out in the media or publicly petition his cause. It's tough to say when this will be discussed during the season, if at all.
With last year's disappointing campaign, sans Showalter's arrival, MacPhail's future in Baltimore remains in limbo and could hinge on how '11 plays out.
1. Can the Orioles compete in 2011?
Were the last two months of '10 an anomaly or a sign of real, honest progress? Is Showalter's magic still in effect? No one knows for certain, but optimism will be riding high when pitchers and catchers report in mid-February. Barring some catastrophe, the Orioles should expect substantial improvement from a 96-loss season. But will it be enough to make their mark in the AL East?
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less