Orioles out to build on last season's success

Orioles out to build on last season's success

Orioles out to build on last season's success
BALTIMORE -- Unlike recent Januarys, the Orioles' upcoming season won't have the typically much-needed feel of a clean slate and a fresh opportunity.

Instead, the Orioles will be out to prove that they are here to stay. An organization that went to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997, Baltimore has been exceptionally quiet this offseason as the rest of the American League East continues to add on and reload. And when the club heads south to Sarasota, Fla., in mid-February, the Orioles will do so with a raised set of expectations and the mindset that last season's incredible run was no fluke.

"This is a pretty good ballclub with the people we have on it right now," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said earlier this month on improving a 2012 club that made it to the AL Division Series.

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"We have a very competitive club as it's currently constituted. We are going to continue to look and try to add a few things to our ballclub, but if we were to break today, we got everybody returning except [Mark] Reynolds and [Joe] Saunders. But I think we got some capable people that can do the job they did for us."

Reynolds signed as a free agent in Cleveland, leaving the Orioles, who are still seeking to add an impact bat, minus some power and exceptional defense. Chris Davis is expected to be the club's first baseman in Reynolds' place, with Adam Jones and Matt Wieters serving as middle-of-the-lineup guys as it stands right now.

The core of the club -- in guys like Jones and Wieters -- is returning, but with 15 players arbitration-eligible, that doesn't leave Duquette a lot of wiggle room in terms of adding potential players via the free-agent market. While the team is still exploring various trade avenues --Duquette made a late move last winter in swapping Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom -- the Orioles have been hesitant to part with any of their young pitching.

So while the Orioles are optimistic they can build on the success of 2012, they -- like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball -- enter the new year with plenty of questions.

10. Will the clubhouse chemistry stay intact?

Reynolds was well-liked among a tight-knit Orioles group that was very much the sum of its parts. Still, the remainder of the club is intact and manager Buck Showalter, who has fostered a culture change since his arrival, has placed emphasis on acquiring players that fit into that mold. It was a large part of their success in 2012, and it can't be discounted if they are going to continue to remain competitive.

9. Will J.J. Hardy bounce back?

The shortstop, who won an AL Gold Glove Award for his work on the field, struggled mightily at the plate. Coming off a 30-homer season in 2011, Hardy slipped to 22 homers with 68 RBIs, posting a disappointing .238/.282/.389 line. To his credit, Hardy's defense never went into a slump and he played through injuries down the stretch to stay on the field and anchor the Orioles' infield. A reemergence offensively would certainly help bolster the team's lineup.

8. How will Jones fare after signing a lucrative extension?

The question has to be asked, although every indication is Jones, who signed a six-year, $85.5 million deal in May, will remain just as driven to succeed. The always-quotable center fielder, who often ends his Twitter messages with "stay hungry," has been named the team's Most Valuable Oriole the past two seasons, and his importance to the team's performance can't be understated.

7. When will the cavalry come?

Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton all were demoted to Triple-A Norfolk at some point last season as the young pitchers continue to struggle with consistency. While Chris Tillman showed signs of putting it together after being promoted in July, the aforementioned trio turning into capable starters would put the Orioles' pitching staff in a nice spot. After using a makeshift rotation in 2012, the Orioles lack a consistent starting five, but top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are knocking at the big league door and could be in Baltimore at some point next season.

6. Can Brian Roberts stay healthy?

The question that has surfaced the past few winters isn't going away anytime soon. Roberts is in the final year of his four-year, $40 million contract and will have to prove he can stay on the field and productive if he wants to play beyond 2013. Meanwhile, Duquette has made contingency plans in claiming Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Twins. Rule 5 Draft pick Ryan Flaherty is another option should Roberts have another health issue.

5. How will Davis fare at first?

Davis had one of the most interesting years in baseball, playing outfield, first base and even getting the win as a pitcher. Now he will be tasked with improving at first base and helping the O's solidify the corner-infield spots. Showalter said previously this winter he believes Davis is a better first baseman than he has shown, and Davis will get every opportunity to prove that.

4. What can the Orioles expect from Nolan Reimold?

Reimold carried the Orioles' lineup through the early part of the season by hitting five home runs in his first 16 games, but he never played again after April 30 due to a nagging neck injury. He worked hard to get healthy and enjoy a regular offseason, with every expectation being he will be ready for Spring Training. While the Orioles did re-sign Nate McLouth, Reimold's performance is paramount to the team, as he's shown stretches of being an impact bat. Should he return to the form of early 2012, Reimold, who had neck surgery similar to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, could also be rotated in and out of the designated hitter spot and give the Orioles' lineup a boost.

3. Where will the offense come from?

Davis and Reimold will be big factors in helping Jones and Wieters share the load, and Duquette has made an effort to add some speed to the lineup -- in guys like McLouth and Casilla -- in hopes of the club manufacturing more runs. The Orioles are still actively searching to add another bat, but coupled with the loss of Reynolds, the lineup is a concern as it stands right now.

2. Will last year's heroes be able to repeat?

Rookies Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen are coming off great seasons, with stout performances out of nearly every reliever, including closer Jim Johnson and right-hander Darren O'Day. The Orioles had a lot of guys step up in 2012 -- including McLouth -- and it's only natural to wonder if they will continue to succeed. Given Baltimore's lack of offseason moves so far, it appears Duquette and Showalter are banking on it.

1. How will the Orioles react to raised expectations?

Last year, it was about being the underdogs and proving others wrong. In 2013, the Orioles won't be sneaking up on anybody. It's unclear how the relatively young club will handle the pressure of following up last season, although Showalter, who finished second in AL Manager of the Year Award voting, will do his best to continue to keep the team on an even keel. A lot of things went the O's way last year, and whether they can recreate some of that magic remains to be seen.

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.