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March 9, 2011

On the Beat

A New Day in Baltimore

by John Perrotto

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SARASOTA, Florida—Nearly all of us have had the desire to go to our bosses and tell them exactly how they should run their operations. Few of us actually ever go through with it because, in most instances, it's not good for job security.

Nick Markakis, though, picked up the phone and called the boss last season. Not only was Orioles owner Peter Angelos willing to talk to his right fielder, he took him to lunch, picked up the tab and even agreed to commit to doing what it takes to make baseball in Baltimore relevant again.

"I just felt he needed to know what the feeling was in the clubhouse," Markakis said. "We really felt we were closer to winning than what our record showed. We felt a lot of the pieces were in place. We just needed more help. That's what I tried to impress upon him, and he was very receptive to what I had to say."

Nine months later, Markakis couldn't be happier with the results of that meeting. The Orioles are an intriguing team following one of their busiest offseasons in years. They certainly should end their streak of five consecutive seasons with at least 92 losses. There is even hope that they can break their string of 13 consecutive losing seasons and perhaps be dark-horse contenders in the difficult American League East.

"There's a feeling here that I've never felt before," Markakis, who was the Orioles' first-round draft pick in 2003, said before a recent Grapefruit League game. "We feel we have a chance to win. It hasn't always been that way. It's a nice change."

The Orioles finished 2010 in last place with a 66-96 record, 30 games behind the division champion Rays and 19 back of the Blue Jays. However, things began to change when Buck Showalter took over as manager on Aug. 2, becoming the Orioles' third skipper of the season after Dave Trembley was fired and Juan Samuel was reassigned. The Orioles went 34-23 in 57 games under Showalter, notching two more wins than in their first 105 games of the season.

Vice president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail then made a series of moves to bolster a lineup that had been 13th in the AL and 27th in the major leagues in scoring, with an average of 3.78 runs per game. He traded for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy and signed first baseman Derrek Lee and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero. Adding those four to a group of holdovers that includes Markakis, catcher Matt Wieters, second baseman Brian Roberts, left fielder Luke Scott, and center fielder Adam Jones gives the Orioles their deepest lineup since 1997, the last finished over .500 and captured the AL East title.

"It's a tough lineup, one through nine," Markakis said. "There really isn't anywhere in the order where the opposing pitcher can take a breather."

The Orioles also needed better pitching after giving up 4.85 runs per game, which ranked 13th in the AL and 26th in the majors. However, the makeover of the pitching staff was not nearly as extreme. Free agent Kevin Gregg was brought in to compete with Koji Uehara for the closer's job; Gregg currently has the edge because Uehara has been shelved by a sore elbow. Right-hander Justin Duchscherer, who has pitched just 28 innings over the past two seasons thanks to a variety of injuries, was signed to help a young rotation that includes left-hander Brian Matusz and righties Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen, and Jake Arrieta.

"There's reason to be excited," Showalter said. "Andy and Peter have made a strong commitment to make this team better. Now that we're in spring training and have everyone together, I think we really feel optimistic about what we might do this season. You know over the course of the season that all kinds of things can happen, but we've got a lot of proven hitters in our lineup, and we feel a lot of young pitchers are ready to take steps forward."

The problem is that every other club in the AL East has reason to be optimistic, too, as there seems to be no weak link. However, the Orioles are at least finally in a position to be respectable after three last-place finishes.

"We're very confident that things are about to change for this organization," Guthrie said. "We feel like we can compete."

Rumors and Rumblings:

Free agent catcher Bengie Molina remains open to playing this season but not in a reduced role, which is why he turned down the Padres' offer to serve as Nick Hundley's backup after Gregg Zaun retired earlier this week. … The Rays reportedly have some interest in Rangers first baseman Chris Davis, who has looked good so far in the Cactus League but has been supplanted in the lineup by Mitch Moreland. … Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre, and Ivan Nova are pitching so well in the battle for the final two spots in the Yankees rotation that GM Brian Cashman no longer feels compelled to make a move before the start of the season. … The Phillies are quietly concerned that second baseman Chase Utley's knee injury is worse than a case of tendinitis and also worry that his body may be breaking down quietly because of how hard he plays. … Right-hander Andrew Cashner has all but pitched his way into the Cubs' rotation. … New Dodgers manager Don Mattingly plans to give Matt Kemp the green light on the bases, even though the center fielder was just 19 of 34 on stolen base attempts last season. Those close to the Dodgers say Kemp has quickly taken to instruction from new first base coach/baserunning guru Davey Lopes.

Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner isn't likely to be a full-time player this season, as manager Manny Acta wants to rotate some of his regulars through the DH slot in order to give them partial days off. … Catching prospect Tony Sanchez, who is ticketed for Double-A Altoona, made such a good impression during his time in major-league camp that the Pirates think he could open next season as their starting catcher. … The Reds are hoping that third base prospect Juan Francisco shows he is advanced enough to be on the Opening Day roster, so they can give Scott Rolen more days off this season. … Tigers outfield prospect Andy Dirks has been the rage of the Grapefruit League. As one scout said, "I've never heard of the kid before, but all he keeps doing is hitting balls hard all over the place." … Meanwhile, Angels first base prospect Mark Trumbo keeps opening eyes in the Cactus League, prompting one scout to say, "He's got big-time power. He's not the typical Angels 'small ball' player, but they've got to find room for him."

One scout's take on Reds right-hander Mike Leake: "He's throwing harder than he did last season, but it's caused his fastball to straighten out." … The Mariners are expected to have right-hander Michael Pineda and second Dustin Ackley start the season at Triple-A, in part to hold down their service time. … The Marlins have been impressed enough by rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez that they are close to announcing that he will be in the Opening day lineup. … Juan Miranda appears to have taken a slight lead over Brandon Allen and Russ Branyan in the competition to be the Diamondbacks first baseman. … Twins left-hander Scott Diamond, selected from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft, doesn't light up the radar gun, but he has caught the scouts' attention this spring. One said of Diamond, "He doesn't rattle and he gets people out. He can pitch in the major leagues, at least as a left-on-left guy in the bullpen."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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