Everyone is a World Series winner at FanFest. Six starting pitchers are about to win the Cy Young, and so is the closer. The batting champion and the home run champion are both on the team. So are nine Gold Glovers. Everyone putting in an appearance is going to make the team even though there are more than 25 players there. In the beginning of February, there's no way to prove otherwise.
Similar scenes surely play out at FanFests for 29 other teams. Or 28 teams, anyway, since the Yankees don't bother to have a FanFest-type event. It's a feel-good time for everyone, maybe even for Phillies fans.
At this same event three years ago, any such optimism about the Orioles was foolish. In January 2012, you could not make any argument in favor of the team on the merits. Even the GM knew that, giving an interview not long before the season started in which he stated that it was not a .500 team. That's probably why the team he had on the field by July was very different than the one that took the field on Opening Day.
Before the 2012 season, the happiest event in recent memory that was repeatedly mined at FanFest for all it was worth was Robert Andino knocking the 2011 Red Sox out of the playoffs. People actually cheered it every time that came on at the 2012 FanFest. The video that kept playing at FanFest 2015 was Delmon Young destroying the Tigers bullpen in the 2014 ALDS. Young himself, when introduced as part of his Q&A panel, received the loudest ovation of the day.
We have come a long way. Now, FanFest is chock full of Adam Jones pieing fans in the face, Buck Showalter talking about how much he enjoyed going to Manager of the Year banquets in New York and Boston, and memories of a 96-win division champion team to keep us warm in the middle of winter. That is much more fun.
Not that this pedigree of recent success is worth a whole heck of a lot to the baseball media intelligentsia. The Orioles have done little this offseason, losing key contributors like Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller in free agency, with Miller even going to a division rival. The whole Dan Duquette/Blue Jays weirdness cast a pall over the relative inactivity as well, at least for everyone who forgot that Duquette hasn't done much the last three offseasons either.
With all of this in mind, the venerated PECOTA projection system pegs the 2015 Orioles for 78 wins. After all, past performance is not a guarantee of future success. PECOTA, by the way, projected 75 wins for the 2014 Orioles, 74 wins for the 2013 team, and 71 wins for those wonderful 2012 Wild Card-winning O's.
Showalter is, unsurprisingly, not fazed by projections like that. At FanFest, he told a cheering crowd, "They're picking us last again, which is beautiful." Given the recent track record, it is beautiful indeed. To Showalter and the players, the expert picks and the computer picks mean little to nothing. Why should it matter to them? They have three years now of knowing that if they go out and play their best, they'll win more often than not. They know, too, that the management will do everything it can to make sure the best possible Orioles team is on the field every day.
Asked about who would be the team's leadoff hitter, Showalter gave an answer that could be one explanation for the team's ability to so vastly exceed projections. "If you look at your 7-8-9 hitters, your fourth and fifth starters compared to other teams," he said, "and your non-closer and set-up guys, you have a real good idea how you are compared to other teams."
This sounds crazy, although if you eyeball the Orioles team from last year compared to their closest division competitors, maybe there is something to it. If your worst hitter as a team is 22-year-old rookie Jonathan Schoop and even he can at least hit 16 home runs while offering a strong defensive presence, you are in decent shape. If you have to demote your closer mid-season and still end up with two sub-2.00 ERA relievers, you have done something right. That helps in winning the division by 12 games.
None of which means that the Orioles are sure to keep up the pace in 2015 just because of what happened last year. Reliever volatility being what it is, Zach Britton and Darren O'Day are so unlikely to duplicate their extraordinary results. Will they be able to patch together a similar quality bullpen if those two are merely good or decent rather than otherworldly?
Without Cruz, the O's are missing a significant presence from the heart of the order. While Buck might preach the bottom of the lineup, replacing that .525 slugging percentage will be crucial. Of course, the Orioles do have a guy who hit 53 home runs just two seasons ago. Unfortunately, he only batted .196 last year.
Chris Davis was asked at FanFest about last year and he seems to think a lot of the problem was the lingering oblique injury that is now behind him after a full offseason to rest. That's what pretty much any injured baseball player will say. Still, he knows a lot more about both being a professional baseball player and about being Chris Davis than I ever will.
It can't hurt that on top of that, the O's have a new hitting instructor in Scott Coolbaugh, who worked with Davis when he was raking his way up the ranks in the Texas system. Coolbaugh talked about how he was familiar with Davis and some of the bad habits he gets into when he struggles. They have an existing relationship, which is important. About the rest of the team, he said the most significant task will be to build relationships and trust with the players.
Sounding impressive at FanFest is not the same thing as putting together a good season on the field. Past players in whom I might have bought stock after they sounded good at FanFest include Jake Arrieta and Henry Urrutia. It may be that tells you more about me than it does about them.
The Orioles were eight wins away from winning the World Series last year. They won 96 games in the regular season. They've brought back nearly the entire team that compiled that record. There's real hope to believe in improvements from returning injured players like Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, and a return to effectiveness from Davis.
If you can't believe in it in January and February, when there's nothing to prove you wrong, then you probably never can. I believe the Orioles could win the World Series this year. That doesn't mean they will, but they could. After so many years of horrible baseball teams, that is fun to be able to say. They are a good team.