-- Austin R., Ellicott City, Md.
Well, Austin, that's the beautiful part of this time of year. Everyone has every right to be optimistic about their favorite team, and Baltimore fans may have more reason than most others. Then again, while the Orioles seem to have turned a corner in their development process, they're still dependent on several young players who will experience some growing pains.
It's not going to be a straight line to stardom for Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, and Matt Wieters may need some more time to fully develop into an All-Star catcher. But the talent level and depth of the Orioles is truly the best it's been in several years, and barring injuries or something truly unforseen, Baltimore should gradually improve over the next few seasons.
This year, though, what you see is what you get. The Orioles will likely announce the Mark Hendrickson signing very soon, and they may add another left-handed reliever before Spring Training begins. Any other roster move would likely be at the margins. Baltimore's starting lineup and rotation is already spoken for, but the bench and bullpen could still see some minor upgrades.
Without a salary cap, do the Orioles have a chance of being a consistent contender in the American League East? Or is it simply a matter of being an occasional contender?
-- Scott G., Fisherville, Va.
Sure, you can compete -- even in the sport's toughest division -- without spending an obscene amount of money. Take Tampa Bay, for instance. The Rays took their lumps for a decade, but now have a dynamic big league roster and a farm system bursting at the seams with talent. Now, Tampa Bay has a huge window to compete and plenty of margin for minor errors.
The Orioles, meanwhile, spend significantly more on payroll than the Rays, but haven't done as well in drafting and player development. That trend has begun to turn in recent years, yielding Baltimore's current crop of front-line talent. The Orioles need to keep adding to that stockpile, though, and they'll need a little regression from both the Red Sox and Yankees.
And it's really not as outlandish as you may think. Boston may well have the best pitching staff in baseball, but it also sports an offense with some major question marks. And New York is the league's defending champion, but a big part of its dynastic core -- Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte -- is aging and nearing the end of the line.
There's no reason that Tampa Bay and Baltimore can't make noise this decade, but they will have to continue drafting well and making the right internal decisions. New York and Boston won't make it easy, but it's certainly not impossible. Remember, the Red Sox and Yankees both went without a title in the '80s and won't be this good forever.
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Why not go after a power hitter? Baltimore needs a cleanup hitter badly. It's a shame we don't go after Johnny Damon or Jermaine Dye.
-- Clark G. Crofton, Md.
I think the thought process here was that the Orioles don't believe they're that close to contending just yet, not to mention that a player like Damon or Dye would take away playing time from the team's existing options. Neither Damon nor Dye is likely to push the Orioles over the top, and Baltimore would rather see Nolan Reimold, Felix Pie and Luke Scott get the at-bats.
In both cases, that seems to be a prudent decision. When Pie plays left field, the Orioles will have one of the fastest and most defensively skilled outfields in baseball. And on those days, either Scott or Reimold can start as the designated hitter. Simply put, Damon or Dye may have been cost-prohibitive and wouldn't have done much except unnecessarily crowd the picture.
Having said all that, Clark's assertion is essentially correct. The Orioles don't have a cleanup hitter, and in a different winter, they may well have been active in pursuing one. Last year, for instance, Baltimore had heavy interest in Mark Teixeira. That appetite may be resurrected next season, but Adam Jones and Wieters may have a chance to grow into the fourth slot before then.
Justin Turner hit .300 for Triple-A Norfolk last year, and can play multiple infield positions as well as the outfield. What are the chances that he unseats Robert Andino as the utility infielder?
-- Mark K., Rochester, N.Y.
Those chances aren't particularly good. Mark is correct in that Turner hits better than Andino, but that's not really the main function of a utility infielder. Andino was on the team last year because he could spell Cesar Izturis at shortstop without a huge defensive dropoff, and he's proven over the years that he can also acquit himself at second base and in the outfield.
Turner, on the other hand, is more of a hitter who fits best at second base. The former Cincinnati farmhand is a little stretched defensively at shortstop, a trait that doesn't fit well on Baltimore's bench. Turner has a better chance of eventually beating out Ty Wigginton, another guy who plays several positions just well enough to get his bat into the lineup.
Does that mean that Andino is a lock as the utility type? No, not at all. Baltimore could improve on him at any moment, but it would likely take a comparable glove man with a better bat. Turner, who was acquired in the trade that sent Ramon Hernandez to the Reds, has a better big league future than Andino, but the present likely belongs to the man with the better glove.