For once, the Orioles have a fan in the national baseball media before the season begins. ESPN's Jayson Stark spent some time in O's camp and he came away impressed, penning a column about the team that doesn't sound so far off from how those of us with a vested emotional interest in the team want them to be seen.
One friendly columnist's article isn't going to win the team any games, just as the host of articles and projections critical of the team won't lose them any. It's still interesting to see how a person from a group of writers that, collectively, tends to favor the big movers and shakers of a given offseason, perhaps because those are the ones who give them something to write about, can sound like a believer in the lack of action.
Much more familiar for O's fans is the ambivalence of Grantland writer Jonah Keri, who posted his first power ranking of all 30 teams this year and placed the Orioles in 15th. Now we're on ground we know. Oh, and included in Keri's top 10 were the Blue Jays (7th), Indians (5th), and Mariners (3rd). Actually, if you read the blurb Keri wrote about the O's, he includes the note that "the O's, if healthy, could easily repeat as division champs - and these rankings could turn out to be way too pessimistic about what has the potential to be a very good ballclub."
Come on, man! Pick a side. Either you think the Orioles will do well or not. No fair slapping them in the middle of the pack and then hedging by saying you think they could roll into another division title just so you're covered in case they actually do it. No one is going to be impressed by the fence-straddling.
Stark, on the other hand, is not scared to stake out a positive position about the O's. He writes that the Orioles, despite having key free agent departures like Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller, "can make up (the lost players) merely by having Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado rebound to some semblance of their 2013 selves."
Now we're talking. Going down the road of speculation, he even makes note that, while Cruz and his 40 home runs went to Seattle, the O's could potentially be primed to replace that just going by the difference in home runs between Davis and Wieters in 2013 (75 combined) and 2014 (31 combined).
Not that it's that easy, of course, as Stark is well aware. Even if Davis bounces back, he likely won't be hitting 50+ homers again. Yet every bit he bounces back is that much less the Orioles have to make up elsewhere. Buying in to a Davis bounce back means accepting his explanation that the big reason for his struggle last season was that the oblique injury he suffered in May never fully healed until after the season was over.
Spring training is full of players proclaiming themselves to be in the best shape of their lives. This is an ongoing joke among baseball writers. Nick Markakis spent a Fanfest and spring training last year talking about his improved health and that managed to lift him from "terrible" to "pretty decent as long as you don't look too hard at his salary." Maybe Davis is saying all of this stuff because he needs to believe it, not necessarily because it is actually true.
Or maybe he's right. The tendency is there to be skeptical of the "best shape of my life" mentality, but the fact is that nobody is going to know better about how Davis' body is feeling than Davis himself, who has to live with it and play baseball with it.
If a better approximation of Davis' talent is the .270/.326/.501 he batted in 2012 while hitting 33 home runs, that would still go a long way to helping the Orioles be a better team. This same idea is true for Wieters at the plate and Machado at third base. They don't all have to be MVP-caliber players to pick up some slack in the lineup.
For Machado, the questions revolve around the health of his knees, with the last two seasons each ending with the same surgery on different knees. Manager Buck Showalter, at least, isn't too worried, telling reporters that Machado is "so ready to go ... he's almost getting bored." He'll have a full spring training to get back up to game speed, unlike last year. All he has to do is be a better regular third baseman than Ryan Flaherty or Jimmy Paredes. No offense intended to either of those gentlemen, but seriously: Duh.
Wieters may be the least safe bet out of the three of these if only because it sometimes seems like people take it for granted that he'll be hitting .308/.339/.500 again this season, as he did last season before getting Tommy John surgery. That was a sample size of only 112 plate appearances, probably just a hot month. Even if he only hits his career batting line of .257/.320/.423, that's still nearly 120 points of OPS better than the trio of Caleb Joseph, Steve Clevenger, and Nick Hundley batted last season.
You would have to be wearing orange-colored shades to think that all of these players are going to revert to the best we've ever seen them. It's no sure thing that they will all improve on last year, but it's not a leap of faith either. There are no certainties in baseball or in life, but the chances seem pretty good for this year's O's team. They look better than many are giving them credit for. It's clear that the team from Showalter on down doesn't particularly care about being media darlings.
The Orioles will be hard-pressed to run away with the division again, especially if the Red Sox and Blue Jays really have improved like that same media class seems to think they have. It could all go badly for the O's if those players aren't as healthy as they say, or if an injury strikes the team somewhere they can't just plug in a competent replacement. What if something happened and Adam Jones had to miss a month? Better not to even think about it.
Whether they repeat as division champions or even get into the playoffs again, this should be a fun team for Orioles fans to spend the season watching. And if they do turn out to be great again thanks to Davis, Wieters, and Machado, even with most of the national writer class counting them out, that will just make it all the more fun for O's fans.