Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, is confident his team has reached a crucial juncture.
"I think we're in a better position to compete on a game-by-game basis in our division," MacPhail said this winter. "Obviously, it's really tough, but you don't make excuses about that. ... You cherish the opportunity to compete there. We need to get better against the better clubs in our division. Look at what our record was against everybody else, and it was .500 or better. Our record on the road wasn't where it needed to be, and I told the people here that 44 percent of our games were decided by two runs or less. We need to do a better job of figuring out how to win those type of games. And if we do, I think that's a big difference."
Ironically, one of Baltimore's major problems last year is also a prominent reason for optimism. The Orioles struggled virtually all season with a starting rotation full of rookies, a contingent that appeared overmatched at times. Baltimore allowed more than six runs in almost a third of its games, but those youngsters should be more prepared in their second tour through the league.
The Orioles acquired Kevin Millwood to join Jeremy Guthrie as a veteran bellwether at the top of the staff, but the team's true gains should come from a full season of having Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz together in the rotation. All three of those pitchers showed promise last season, and Baltimore should finally have some starting depth at Triple-A Norfolk.
And that's not the only place the team appears to be deeper. The Orioles have one of the strongest outfields in the big leagues, with budding stars Adam Jones and Nick Markakis leading the way. Baltimore also has a potentially productive platoon in left field featuring Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie, and a proven designated hitter in veteran Luke Scott.
There's also catcher Matt Wieters, who batted .288 last season and appears to be on the verge of a major breakthrough. All of a sudden, Baltimore -- which finished 24-48 against American League East teams last season -- has a complete roster that can hurt other teams in a variety of ways. Now, the only thing left to do is translate potential into production.
"I think Andy has made it real clear that we're out of Phase One and into Phase Two," said manager Dave Trembley. "I think all of us need to tighten up our belts and be a little bit more conscientious in our approach and be a little bit more accountable for the product we're able to put on the field. But for the results -- the way we go about it -- I don't think that necessarily has to change. I just think it needs to get better. I think we need improvement on a more consistent basis from everybody."
Baltimore's farm system is still awash in pitching prospects, and corner infielders Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder should be ready to make their big league debuts at some point this season. But unlike seasons past, the Orioles won't have to rush them. The club signed Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada to one-year deals this winter for that exact reason.
And in Tejada, they have a fitting sign of the times. The six-time All-Star was dealt to the Astros two seasons ago for a five-player haul that helped thicken Baltimore's organizational depth, and now he comes back to a different team and a different feeling. Tejada, who played four seasons in his first stint with the Orioles, can tell that things have changed.
"In Houston, we started an hour later ... and I would always look for the Orioles game," Tejada said recently. "It's totally different and you can see it. I saw that they have a guy who can be a future [star] for a long time in their catcher, and they have Jones in center field. They have Markakis, and you can see all the young pitchers they have that they didn't have when I came here for the first time. This time, it's not about me. It's about everybody. ... They don't have to do much to be a winner here."
They may not have to do much but wait for their young talent to accrue experience, but Tejada's competitive drive may help in the short run. Baltimore finished 7-29 against Boston and New York last year, sinking against the top two teams in the division. By contrast, the O's went 17-19 against the Jays and Rays, holding their own against their other division rivals.
The Orioles added Michael Gonzalez to be their closer this winter, and they think that erstwhile starters Koji Uehara and David Hernandez can help make their bullpen a decided strength. That's only one of the many plotpoints to watch for this Spring Training, and MacPhail is confident that his fanbase can see the wide-ranging progress the franchise has made.
"I think last year we showed individual progress and promise, whether it was Matt Wieters or Nolan Reimold or Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz," MacPhail said. "People got their expectations and their hopes up somewhat because they could see young, talented players. That did not manifest itself in victories. We won fewer games than we did the year before. Our job in the offseason was to take these young kids and surround them with some quality veterans that can help them grow.
"Now, it's time for us to grow as a team and to show that we can move the needle as a team as it relates to wins and losses. We need to show collective progress, where to this point, we've shown individual progress."