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Spitballin’

Spitballin’

Bar Raised for O’s

Spring training is underway, the Orioles are back at work in Sarasota, and these 2013 Birds have got quite a job ahead of them. The O’mazin O’s of 2012 set the bar to shocking new heights with their stunning run in the postseason, finally breaking a 15-year playoff hiatus that had transcended drought and was beginning to look like the Mojave East. But before this year’s ball club could even take a shot at a Fosbury Flop over the bar last year’s Birds had set, the Ravens came out and won the Super Bowl. Now, expectations in beautiful Baltimore are so high, Buck Showalter and the Boys in Orange may need a jetpack to reach those dizzying heights, and not many outside of the 410 think the Birds can do it.

The oddsmakers in Vegas have pegged the Orioles for last place in the AL East, even behind last year’s mega-trainwreck Red Sox, with an under/over of 76.5 wins. That’s a losing record, if you’re keeping score at home, for a team that is returning the bulk of the 2012 squad that won 93 regular-season games and finished just two games behind those devils in pinstripes, the New York Yankees. The problem is there are still some big dogs kicking around in the AL East, but it’s not the dogs you’re expecting. The Tampa Bay Rays lost their ace, James Shields, but still have 20-game winner David Price to lead a staff that led the majors in ERA and opponent’s batting average—and that’s before one considers the blockbuster offseason the Toronto Blue Jays put together.

If the Blue Jays’ one-sided mega-deal with the Florida Marlins had been their only move of the year, they’d be the best team in baseball. The Jays unloaded some deadweight and a few big maybes in a 12-player fleecing of the Marlins that landed them three of Miami’s best players in slick fielding shortstop and 2011 NL batting champ Jose Reyes, former all-star pitcher Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle. But Toronto didn’t stop there. They went on to sign knuckle-balling phenom and reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, making them a popular pick to win the division.

At the other end of the AL East spectrum, traditional powerhouses New York and Boston are beginning to look like paper tigers. The biggest move for the Boston Red Sox, the laughingstock of last season, was firing their prima donna manager, Bobby Valentine. It is a definite case of addition by subtraction, and the Red Sox will at the very least be a far less whiny team. Down I-95, in New York, the Yankees’ nucleus isn’t getting any younger. At this point, A-Rod’s distractions are bigger than his bat; Mariano Rivera is back from an injury that cost him most of last season, but how much he’s got left in that arm is a big question mark; Derek Jeter will turn 39 this season and I’m predicting this is the season where his magic cleats turn back into pumpkins (literally).

Of course, the biggest change for this year’s Orioles is the loss of the Sheriff, Mark Reynolds. While Reynolds’ bat was a letdown last year, down the stretch, he was remarkable in the field at first. His glove and his clubhouse presence will be sorely missed, and team chemistry is not a quality to be undervalued in a club that had the best record in one-run games in Major League history and went a stunning 16-2 in extra innings. The popular refrain is that the Orioles played over their heads last year, but Adam Jones is only 27, with his best years at the plate on the horizon; Manny Machado came up with some big hits as a late-season addition, but should put up much better numbers this year; J.J. Hardy’s average fell 30 points from the mark he set the previous two season and should rebound for a bigger year; and throw in a full season from Nick Markakis, who played in only 104 games last year and missed the playoffs after averaging 158 games over his first six seasons, and the Orioles bats could be a bit noisier in 2013.

The defense, which had been a major problem, became one of the strengths of the club, with Machado playing Gold Glove-level third base to match a stellar defensive outfield stacked with three Gold Glovers, slicker-than-grease shortstop Hardy, and an all-galaxy fielder behind the plate in Matt Wieters, and as any good Bmore baseball fan can tell you, the key to winning the Oriole’s Way is pitching and defense.

Pitching, for many, is another question mark for the Orioles. Last year, the bullpen was phenomenal, perhaps the best in baseball, but many doubt that closer Jim Johnson will be able to put up another 51-save season.

The starting rotation may have some question marks, but not as many as it did going into last year. Chen, who led the team in wins and starts as a rookie last year, is back with a full season of Major League experience under his belt. He’s only 27, but has a serious workhorse streak with a lot of upside. Jason Hammel was coming into his own a year ago when an injury cost him a big part of the year, but his knee is back to 100 percent and he will anchor the O’s rotation. The rest of the rotation could be in flux for much of the season, but former Mexican League standout Miguel Gonzalez and one-time star prospect Chris Tillman both came up big last year and hope to do more of the same this season, and if former all-star free agent Jair Jurrjens, who is Dutch, can be convinced to use cleats instead of wooden clogs, he too could be a big contributor.

The Orioles’ patchwork rotation will definitely need a deft hand, and that deft hand will be provided by the Orioles’ biggest X-factor, Buck Showalter. Buck is the best manager in baseball and has a preternatural understanding of this club. The AL East, as always, is a beast, but the Orioles will compete. If you’re a betting man or woman, take the over. The birds will put up 88 wins this year and be battling the Blue Jays and Rays for the division. Buckle up, O’s fans, the Birds got a bar to jump.

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