SARASOTA, Fla. -- First there was a lot of losing. Then the 2012 baseball darlings who advanced to the postseason for the first time since 1997, and last year, the disappointment when the Orioles were eliminated from the postseason race in the season's final week.
So, after a pair of marquee free-agent acquisitions at the start of spring, is Baltimore now the front-runner in the American League East? A team that some people in baseball believe could win 100 games if the bullpen holds up? Or are the Orioles still cast in the underdog role -- a spot manager Buck Showalter has thrived in rallying the club around -- with a rotation headed by Chris Tillman and new addition Ubaldo Jimenez, perhaps banking on too much to fall in their favor?
One thing is certain: the Orioles -- who also signed free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz -- aren't sneaking up on anyone. Those days are long gone.
"We don't have it?" Showalter said cheekily of the underdog label heading into Opening Day on Monday against the Red Sox. "Tampa probably has the best four- or five-year track record of consistency, Boston is [defending] world champion and New York obviously spent a lot of money, did a lot of things. So, on the surface, yes, of course [the Orioles look to be underdogs].
"But we don't get involved in who is expected to do what, because nobody is going to have higher expectations than what we already have."
Those expectations will be tested immediately with a three-game series against the Red Sox and a pair of road series against the Tigers and Yankees to open the season. Baltimore's schedule has been rated as one of the toughest in baseball entering the season, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any complaining in the Orioles' clubhouse. Instead, it's business as usual for a camp that generated significant spring buzz after a winter in which the Orioles traded away popular closer Jim Johnson, called off a deal with free-agent reliever Grant Balfour when they weren't satisfied with the results of his physical and didn't make a significant roster addition.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette smiled when asked at Cruz's news conference -- the third in a week-long span that also included the Orioles signing Jimenez and free-agent pitcher Suk-min Yoon -- about this barrage of moves easing the cold winter. But the flurry of activity proved the Orioles are in it to win it -- now.
"We want to contend every year, but we made some conscious choices to put the resources into our ballclub this year," Duquette said after the Cruz signing, which cost the Orioles their second pick, 55th overall, in this year's First-Year Player Draft. "We like the core of our team. We like our core players. They are at the stage in their careers where they should continue to have good, solid years, and we hope we built our pitching staff properly."
The Jimenez addition, which took away the club's compensation Draft pick, was the largest contract in club history (four years, $52 million) for a free-agent pitcher, and the right-hander immediately makes the rotation better. Jimenez is slated to start the second game of the season, following Tillman -- who is coming off a career year -- with Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris rounding things out. Having a healthy Chen and Gonzalez, who have both missed time due to injury, would be huge, although the O's also have pitching prospect Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings to counter the losses of starters Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel this winter.
Also gone is longtime Oriole Brian Roberts and outfielder Nate McLouth, with the O's filling those spots by trading with Kansas City for David Lough and acquiring infielder Steve Lombardozzi earlier this week from Detroit. Lough has speed and is a potential leadoff option, with Duquette telling fans at this year's FanFest that their new left fielder was better than McLouth in nearly all facets of the game.
Lombardozzi is expected to start the season at second base, and Ryan Flaherty will be at the hot corner with third baseman Manny Machado on the disabled list. Prospect Jonathan Schoop, who had an excellent spring, will also try to force his way into the big league infield soon.
That infield has a host of Gold Glove Award finalists, including winners in Machado and shortstop J.J. Hardy, as the O's, who also have a Gold Glove Award winner in center fielder Adam Jones, return the core of a defense that set the Major League record in 2013 for fewest errors (54) in a season. The lineup has been bolstered by Cruz and is led by first baseman Chris Davis, who hit a Major League-leading 53 home runs last season.
How deep are the O's? Hardy, a Silver Slugger Award winner, could bat eighth when Machado returns. It's a scary thought for opponents and should take some pressure off the pitching staff knowing they will get some support.
The biggest issue the club identified last season was the bullpen, and it's something Showalter had high on his radar this winter. Tommy Hunter is expected to get the ball in Johnson's absence, and lefty Zach Britton has emerged as the darling of the spring, wowing scouts and the organization as a potential late-inning relief arm. Darren O'Day, another closing option should the O's need it, has spent a good chunk of the spring working on a changeup to help his numbers against righties, and lefty Brian Matusz has been stretched out to start with a similar focus in mind. Still, replacing Johnson, who had back-to-back 50-save seasons, will be tough.
"Bullpens are so cyclical and volatile, and it's so hard to predict coming in because track-record guys are reserved for closers," Showalter said. "We are fortunate to have someone like Darren and Tommy who have a track record. But that's yet to be played out. That one, it's not that it concerns me, it's just an area of unknown. And a lot of the success of our bullpen will be determined by how deep our starters get. If we are having to get 12 outs out of the bullpen every night, it'll be challenged."
Are the Orioles better than a year ago? Possibly. They have better depth and a stronger rotation, at least on paper. And in the end, the lineup and defense can only do so much, as almost every team that makes it to October has one thing in common: strong pitching.
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