Meticulous Showalter does everything for a reason
Manager and GM Duquette believe they've built a lasting contender
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Nothing happens by accident here.
Not the inspirational words painted on the walls in the home clubhouse. Not the flags hanging in the hallway, representing all the home countries of the players on the roster. Not the posted depth charts of each American League East team. Not the bumper billiard and ping-pong tables that encourage camaraderie. Not even the casual conversations among players and coaches, educated as they are by the player bio pages handed out for staffers to study.
Every last detail about the City of Sarasota Sports Complex during the Baltimore Orioles' Spring Training is monitored by Buck Showalter in some way, right down to the infield dirt over at Field 4 (which, Showalter will proudly tell you, is retaining rain water much better since some Camden Yards grounds crew members were brought in to address it).
So if you're tempted to dismiss the Orioles' magical 2012 season -- one largely built on one-run, two-run and extra-inning victories -- as an unrepeatable product of luck, remember this:
Things happen for a reason around here.
"With the preparation that Buck brings to the clubhouse," said catcher Matt Wieters, "it's only a matter of time before guys buy in. You put the work toward it, and you're going to get the results eventually."
None of us -- and not even the most optimistic Orioles fan -- was smart enough to predict the results that would unfold in 2012, when the O's won 93 regular-season games, eliminated the Rangers in the Wild Card Game and took the Yankees to the brink in the ALDS.
So, please, let's not bother to offer such predictions about this next installment of the O's.
Let's just acknowledge that Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette have built something special here, with the contract extensions through 2018 to show for it. And let's also offer the opinion that a winter devoid of big-ticket moves does not preclude the O's from doing something special again in the year ahead.
"A lot of the players we picked up last year," said Duquette, while watching Friday morning's round of bullpen sessions, "we picked them up to be with our team for a couple years, not just last season. So our fans understand we were returning our core players. That's a legit middle of the lineup, legit rotation and a good bullpen. This was a team fans embraced because of the work ethic and the determination to win close games. So they like the team. They were just getting to know them late in the season. And we felt good bringing most of the group back."
What the Orioles bring back, most prominently, is that aforementioned middle of the order -- Wieters, Adam Jones and Chris Davis. Jones and Davis each eclipsed the 30-homer mark in 2012, and Wieters has seen his RBI total increase each season of his big league career, up to 83 last season. The organization already rewarded Jones with a long-term extension last year, and it stands to reason that Wieters is next.
The need for another bat was considered vital this winter. And it might emerge as a particularly pertinent need if the rotating cast at designated hitter -- Wilson Betemit against right-handers and Danny Valencia, Russ Canzler and Steve Pearce all potential options against lefties -- doesn't pan out. Or if second base, where the oft-injured or otherwise concussed Brian Roberts is using this spring to attempt another comeback, turns out to be a black hole.
Well, it's not too late to rule out a trade that deals from the depths of the O's organizational strength -- starting pitching. Especially if some club has arms that come up ailing in camp and desperation kicks in.
As it stands, the O's have somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen bodies in the mix for five rotation spots. And that doesn't count the potential Jair Jurrjens reclamation project, now that Jurrjens signed a Minor League deal with the club (unsurprisingly, Showalter had a jersey waiting for him while the negotiations dragged on).
Wei-Yin Chen (12-11, 4.02 ERA in 2012) and Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43) lead the rotation group in terms of experience (Chen was the only member of last year's club to log more than 20 starts). Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman and Steve Johnson are next in the pecking order, based on last year's results (the three combined for a 3.15 ERA from July 7 on).
Beyond that group, the O's have Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter in the mix, with the possibility that Matusz and Hunter, in particular, could become bullpen options after successful stints there last season. And then, of course, there are the limelights of the O's farm system -- Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 overall picks from each of the last two Drafts. They're coming soon.
This list doesn't even include Rule 5 pickup T.J. McFarland, a 16-game winner in 27 starts at the Double-A and Triple-A levels last year, and Zach Clark, a 15-game winner in the upper levels last year who saw notable gains in velocity. Duquette, for one, is intrigued by both.
"We have a very competitive group of pitchers," Duquette said. "So we have some depth. We just don't have a great deal of experience."
Some regression is almost undoubtedly on tap in some areas of the roster, and who knows if the O's can repeat the magic transactional touch that helped them routinely overcome injury and adversity last year.
But this club does figure to benefit from the return to health of Nick Markakis, who will likely return to the leadoff spot, and Nolan Reimold. Most notably, a full season from Manny Machado, who helped the O's transform into a stellar defensive unit in the second half last season, presents a ton of upside.
In a less-tangible sense, the experience of last season's Wild Card ride has further fostered the upbeat and confident attitude that emanates from the O's clubhouse.
"The successes in baseball are built on individual performances," special assistant Brady Anderson said. "So a guy like Chris Davis comes in [last year], and his big league career is uncertain. Now he's coming off a 33-home run season. When you have the confidence off those individual performances, there's an aura about the camp that's more positive."
There is also an aura of professionalism and preparedness that extends from Showalter's famous attention to detail. Showalter has noted that when the O's held their first pitchers and catchers meeting this week, Wieters, Hammel, Johnson and reliever Pedro Strop were lined up in the first row of seats, ready, attentive and inquisitive. It was a small thing that, naturally, did not go unnoticed by the skipper, who values player input at all levels.
"There's no hazing that goes on here," Showalter said. "It's, 'You're wearing the black and orange? All right, let's go.' It's beautiful. It's a club that polices itself, stays in reality and has tunnel vision."
This did not happen by accident.