It’s official as of this morning. Orioles baseball is back, or at least six weeks of warm-up Orioles baseball that may periodically feature players who will really be on this year’s edition of the Orioles. No matter how cold or wet it is wherever you are, for the next month and a half, somewhere in Florida, the Orioles will be warm and in the sun in spring training. That ain’t nothing.
Going hand-in-hand with the idea of sunny warmth is optimism for the upcoming season. Players will be full of it as they talk about how much weight they’ve lost (or muscle they’ve gained) over the offseason. Pictures of unexpected players with ripped muscles will lead to power surge predictions.
Those who were injured will be full of good feelings about how much healthier they are now and how the season to come will go so much better. Some may even use the now-widely-mocked phrase “best shape of my life.” Some of them might even be right.
Not too long ago, spring training was about the only time of the year where it was possible for an Orioles fan to be optimistic. Only before they had started to lose games could you feel good about the team. Things are better now.
Once, the pie-in-the-sky dream was, “Can we not suck this year?” Even that bare minimum could not be met for a long time. I remember all too well buying into some hype that the team would be OK in 2010 and telling people that the Orioles were going to really improve. The 2010 Orioles, you may recall, began the season 2-16.
We’re past those days, hopefully for good, or at least for as long as Manny Machado is hanging around. Now, there are actual expectations. The Orioles have now made the playoffs three times in the past five seasons.
Even making the playoffs as a bare minimum seems insufficient after watching the Orioles get bounced on the road in the wild card game, with no chance to see any of the postseason come to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. They need to make it into the playoffs and actually go somewhere for the season to feel successful.
Bringing back nearly the entirety of a team that did make the playoffs, minus one of its worst starting pitchers, is a good start to that end. At least, assuming that everyone who was good last year will be good and healthy again this year and that some of the people that the O’s are counting on to be better will actually improve. That’s a big assumption to make.
When the calendar turned to 2017, I wrote about whether the Orioles looked like a playoff team right then. Except for the wide-eyed optimists, there was not a lot of thought that they were.
One bit of good news is that the Orioles have done two things that seem to make the team better since then. They dumped Yovani Gallardo onto the Mariners and got back an actual, functional outfielder in Seth Smith. They also re-signed reigning home run champion Mark Trumbo, who, even if he’s not a perfect player, figures to be better than whatever they would have done without him.
The other thing is that the Orioles have not really looked like a playoff team at this point in any of the three recent seasons where they ended up in the postseason. No one operating rationally could have foreseen a 93-win season from the 2012 O’s or a 96-win season from the 2014 team at the start of spring training.
Last year was no different. The 2016 Orioles looked to be a team with a starting rotation full of question marks with a feast-or-famine offense that lacked the on-base skills necessary to compete consistently. The rotation picture proved to be even more uncertain when Miguel Gonzalez was released at the end of spring training. And indeed, the things you might have been most nervous about failed in precisely those predictable ways.
The Orioles overcame all of that to make the postseason. Much like they have done in their past successful seasons, they had big contributions from unexpected places - and some expected ones too.
Trumbo, a castoff, became a home run king. Machado was as good as advertised at the plate. Zach Britton turned in a season that was about as close to flawless as a baseball player can reasonably be. Brad Brach was lights out in the first half. Donnie Hart was lights out in the second half. Players like Pedro Alvarez and Hyun Soo Kim, who had rocky springs and Aprils, ended up being useful pieces of a successful team. This is how you win when no one thinks you can.
There’s good reason to be anxious about this year’s edition of the team as spring training gets underway. Not all of the things that were good are going to keep being as good. For instance, Britton having another perfect save season is just not likely, no matter how good he is.
Yet there are specific players who have some upside potential as well, even if, for some, the extent of that upside is little more than, “He can’t possibly be THAT bad again.”
That’s a category with Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez in it. Caleb Joseph is also there. None of these three guys has to be great to be better than they were, and every little bit they’re better - even if they only improve to “slightly below average” - is improvement for the team.
In the MASH unit, Chris Davis admitted he was hurt and says he’d much better now, and he still hit 38 home runs even while hurt. Adam Jones never admitted he was hurt, but probably was. Darren O’Day was definitely hurt and will hopefully be better now.
Chris Tillman had a fine season and is capable of better. Kevin Gausman, too, was fine, and we hope he is capable of better. Dylan Bundy, supposedly with his cutter back in action, is preferable to seeing Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson - if Bundy stays healthy.
Does it mean the Orioles are going to win the World Series? No, probably not. It’s hard to win the World Series, even for great teams. But as spring training starts, we can dream that if enough things go right, they could. That’s what the spirit of spring training is all about.