Baltimore's squad built on brilliance
SARASOTA, Fla. -- On a sun-splashed Sunday morning, Orioles manager Buck Showalter is proudly showing off a new bullpen area that was finished just before the beginning of Spring Training.
Showalter designed it himself -- three full mounds and two lower ones for rehabilitating pitchers. Almost as important is its location, near three practice infield areas, so his guys can get their work done more efficiently.
It's not a huge deal. It may not win a single game and will go mostly unnoticed. And yet it's one of those little things that sends a not-so-subtle message.
"You want guys to know you're paying attention, that you're always looking for ways to get better," said Showalter, who got the idea during a tour of Dodgertown years ago. Back then, those mounds had special meaning, because guys named Koufax and Drysdale had used them.
"Actually, it was kind of sacred to throw a bullpen session from one of those mounds," Showalter said.
As Showalter has given tours of the new area this spring, he has usually included a money quote.
"You know what they say about the road to success always being under construction."
Showalter smiles the smile of a happy man, a proud man. He has been one of the key figures in resurrecting one of baseball's "crown jewel" franchises and making it one of the smartest, most successful operations in the game.
It's not just that the O's have been to the playoffs twice in the last three seasons or that they won the American League East by 12 games in 2014. It's not even that their 274 victories are the second most among AL clubs since 2012.
As impressive as all that is, it's how Baltimore has done it. That is, with brilliant baseball people -- beginning with executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette -- who have found talent in places others haven't even looked and with a manager who long ago established himself as one of the best of his generation.
One of Showalter's points of pride is giving every player a chance to prove himself. As he puts it, "No one is going to out-opportunity us. We want this to be the place [where] a guy gets the most out of his ability.
"When we send a guy down, we can look him in the eye and tell him if he takes care of his business, he's most likely going to get a shot."
That's how a waiver claim named Steve Pearce got a chance to hit 21 home runs last season. And that's how a pitcher signed out of the Mexican League, Miguel Gonzalez, got 69 starts and compiled a 3.45 ERA in three years. That's how an unprotected Rule 5 Draft pick, left-hander T.J. McFarland, got into 75 games over a two-year stretch.
To be fair, the Orioles also have stars: center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and starter Chris Tillman. They have an assortment of coveted pitching prospects: Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy.
And it's the brilliance of Showalter, and of Jones and Wieters and the other veterans who suffered through times when the O's lost 90 games routinely and Camden Yards was half-full, that has made it all work.
"We've been together three, four years now," Jones said. "We've got a good group of guys that understand the team philosophy. We've been able to accomplish some of our goals. Not all of them. But some of them."
The Orioles also thrive on being overlooked. Showalter has noticed that his team is being picked by many to finish last in the AL East. He's fine with that. Actually, he seems to thrive on it.
And the O's once more are doing it a different way. They lost three members of their 2014 team to free agency: outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, and reliever Andrew Miller.
Cruz led the Majors with 40 home runs, and his departure leaves a significant hole. How is he being replaced?
Duquette added pieces from here and there, including a trade for Pirates outfielder Travis Snider. The Orioles also took a pair of unprotected players in the Rule 5 Draft: right-handers Logan Verrett and Jason Garcia. The O's think that both might make the club and contribute.
Duquette empowers his scouts and has asked them to focus on what available players can do rather than what they can't. Perhaps that's why Baltimore has nine players in camp who were once Rule 5 Draft picks -- that is, players some teams felt comfortable leaving off their roster.
The Orioles also think that getting Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado back from injuries and first baseman Chris Davis back from a 25-game suspension could offset the free-agency departures.
"Hey, there are no experts," Jones said. "No one believed in us last year."
Added Tillman: "We're a work in progress. We've still got a long way to go. We came together as a team last year, but we haven't played as well as we're capable of. We can still get better."
Though the O's led the Majors in home runs last season, it was pitching and defense that got them into the AL Championship Series against the Royals.
"The biggest difference in our club last year was that our starting pitching got deeper into games," Showalter said. "And we return those people, so I feel good about that. And the people that caught the ball behind them, they're back, too."
Oh, and the Orioles have five of the first 102 picks in the 2015 First-Year Player Draft. That's why Duquette spent the weekend on the road scouting.
"I think that's why there's a great morale right now among our scouts and player development [staff]," Showalter said. "We know how we have to do this. We've got to nail these picks. These are very big to maintain our continuity."