Orioles plan to push forward, not fall back
Manager Showalter, players out to prove magical '12 wasn't a fluke
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles really don't care that you think they're going to fall flat on their face this season. Just so you know.
"Nostradamus is dead," center fielder Adam Jones said.
Well, there is that.
"You can't predict stuff," he added. "You have to play 162 games, and then you can have your opinions."
Actually, the Orioles seem to love being picked last again in the American League East. For one thing, they're used to it. For another, stuff that happens outside their clubhouse is just noise.
"We don't even look at that," catcher Matt Wieters said. "We love the guys we have in this clubhouse."
Is that right, J.J. Hardy?
"Last year we were going to be lucky to win 60-70 games," the Orioles' shortstop said. "We supposedly had the worst pitching staff in baseball. We heard it all."
Manager Buck Showalter is asked if he's mentioned these dire forecasts to his club. He smiles.
"It kind of fits us, so thank you whoever is doing it," he said. "That's fine. Our guys know the biggest liar in sports is, 'They say ...' Our guys have been down this road so many times they're numb to it. They go, `What's new?'"
And to be clear, the predictions are based on history. The Orioles had a magical ride in 2012, improving by 24 games and making the postseason for the first time in 15 years. They were 29-9 in one-run games, winning 13 in a row at one point. They won 16 straight extra-inning games as well.
The O's used 52 players, including 12 starting pitchers. Their executive vice president of baseball operations, Dan Duquette, did an incredible job finding talent. The Orioles got contributions from players who'd been released by other organizations (Nate McLouth, Randy Wolf, etc.). They found a productive starting pitcher in Mexico (Miguel Gonzalez), and grabbed a hitter from an independent league (Lew Ford). They led the Majors in 19-year-olds (Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy).
Showalter made it work spectacularly well. He leaned on a core group of veterans -- Jones, Wieters, Hardy, Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson -- who'd endured some tough times and were driven to change the narrative.
But Showalter never allowed his guys to lose sight of the larger picture. Players came and went, and the Orioles consistently played with purpose. Years from now, Showalter may look back and see 2012 as his finest hour, and he has had plenty of fine hours in his career.
And history says the O's can't do it again. They made no dramatic offseason additions, and clubs that historically have made huge strides in one season take a step back the year after. Also, there would seem to be some function of luck in going 29-9 in one-run games, so 2013 should be a year that record evens out.
It would be a mistake to think the Orioles buy one bit of the negative chatter. They believe there's still a human element in the game, and that playing hard and playing smart still matters.
The Orioles also think they're good, and that's a huge part of the deal. Their clubhouse has the feel of a team, a true team. Even better, they're blessed with terrific young pitching depth and believe they may improve from within as Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and others continue to figure things out. They also have two of baseball's best pitching prospects in Bundy and 22-year-old right-hander Kevin Gausman, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Both of them may begin the season at Double-A Bowie, but as the Orioles showed last year, they're not afraid to make changes. They have few players signed to long-term contracts, so Showalter and Duquette have the flexibility to replace players who aren't performing well.
"That's the way the real world works, right?" Showalter said. "We think Miguel can help us, but he's got options. You can get right on down the list. We've got ways to maneuver.
"There's a morale in your organization that comes with that flexibility. They know we're going to be looking from within and not be constantly coveting other people's players."
Part of Showalter's brilliance is the ability to deliver a message and to get his players to buy it. And there's a different one for each player.
When the Orioles obtained first baseman Chris Davis from the Texas Rangers, Showalter let Davis know that he believed in him in a way the Rangers never did.
The Orioles believe in Showalter to the degree that Jones wouldn't sign his long-term contract extension without assurances from the manager that he intended to stay around for awhile.
Even last year, when the Orioles seemed likely to be buried in the AL East again, Showalter pitched a message of hope. He told his guys to look around the room and to understand that the Orioles did have talent and they did have a chance. And his guys believed.
"We thought we were good last year before anyone noticed that we were good," Wieters said. "The only difference is that the experience from last year is something we can use to our advantage. We know what worked last year, and we can tweak some of the things that didn't work. It's nice to get to the playoffs, but our goals still aren't done as an organization. We still have to get better."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.