Bill Clinton was president. Beanie Babies and Furbies were all the rage. Mike Trout was six years old. The year was 1998.
For Orioles fans, that was the last time spring training began with any spark of enthusiasm. Fresh off consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series, the 1998 Orioles fell flat on their face. Fourteen consecutive losing seasons followed.
It was a dark time to be an Orioles fan. Until last year, that is. Buck Showalter's 2012 Birds used a special blend of magic, moxie and luck to rise to the top of the AL East and return to the playoffs.
The 2013 edition of the Showalter's squad looks very similar to the 2012 version that shocked the world. In no way, shape, or form is that a bad thing. The free-agent market was weak this year, and short of signing Josh Hamilton, the Orioles would not have upgraded their roster significantly.
Many have already written the Orioles off as a one-year wonder, but this is a good team that can realistically expect to contend again in 2013. It is not realistic to expect them to repeat their 29-9 record in one run games or their 16-2 record in extra innings. Those are historic numbers.
To prove 2012 was more than a fluke, the Orioles will need to raise their team batting average, play excellent defense, get passable starting pitching and rule innings seven through nine. These five players will play a large part in making that happen.
When Nick Markakis went down last September, I will be the first to admit I thought it was the end of the Orioles' playoff hopes.
Enter Nate McLouth. The journeyman outfielder may have resurrected his career with a very strong September and postseason in which he hit six home runs and stole nine bases.
McLouth offers a unique blend of speed and power, and at his best, he was an All Star for the Pirates. The trouble with McLouth is that he has failed to provide consistency at the plate throughout his major league career.
It has been since 2009 that he posted a season batting average over .250 at the major league level—although he did bat .268 in 55 games with the Orioles. Look for Showalter to pencil McLouth in at the bottom of the lineup.
At $2 million for the season, McLouth is a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Orioles. If he produces the way he did last fall, McLouth will be a mainstay in the Orioles lineup, as his speed makes him a more valuable defender than Nolan Reimold.
Please take three minutes to watch Manny Machado's 2012 defensive highlights.
Now pick your jaw off the floor.
Machado is capable of playing the kind of defense not seen at the hot corner in Baltimore since a certain No. 5 patrolled Memorial Stadium. Sacrilege? I think not.
At the tender age of 20, Manny Machado is a premier defensive third basemen in the American League. He was not drafted, however, solely for his ability to handle the glove. Machado was drafted to one day be a cornerstone not only to the Orioles infield, but also to their lineup. By letting Mark Reynolds walk, the Orioles have made it clear that they believe Machado is ready for the big leagues.
In his brief time in the majors last season, Machado showed flashes of brilliance. His first hit was a triple. He hit two home runs in his second game. He also struggled to get on base, posting a .294 on-base percentage to complement his .268 batting average.
Like many young players, Machado must learn the strike zone. Swinging at 30 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone over the course of a full season will not lead to success. Expect Showalter to continue keeping Machado in the number nine spot.
One day, he will be expected to carry the team from the heart of the order, but for now, his continued development as a hitter is paramount.
Whatever offensive production the team receives from their future star is a bonus considering the upgrade he provides defensively over the departed Reynolds. Combined with reigning Gold Glove-winning JJ Hardy, Orioles pitchers will be able to breathe easy when the ball is hit to the left side of the infield.
The Orioles took a flier on the oft-injured, 27-year-old Jurrjens. The former Brave has not pitched a full season since 2009.
Unlike most young pitchers, however, his troubles do not stem from his shoulder or elbow. Jurrjens' right knee has failed him the past three seasons, with the low point coming last season. As his ERA ballooned, velocity dropped, and walk rate soared, he spent a large part of the season in the minors.
When fully healthy in 2009 and 2011, Jurrjens pitched to a 27-16 record with a 2.75 ERA. This is the pitcher the Orioles hope they are getting. He was a 2011 All-Star, and entered the Midsummer Classic with a 1.87 ERA.
Simply put, when healthy, Jair Jurrjens is an ace. The signing is a bit of a gamble given the pitcher's injury history, but the potential rewards far outweigh his $1.5 million starting salary.
The Orioles hit in big in 2012 with unheralded starters Jason Hammel, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez far exceeding expectations. Jair Jurrjens is a proven Major League starter and a bona fide number two behind Hammel when healthy. A rotation of Hammel, a healthy Jurrjens, Tillman, Chen and a yet-to-be-determined fifth, would be the best rotation since the days of Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson.
Big Tommy Hunter was not very good as a starter in 2012 for the Baltimore Orioles. Truth be told, he was downright awful. His move to the bullpen, however, was a whole different story.
Hunter was dominant in September after an initial feet-wetting period in the bullpen. During the Orioles postseason push, he pitched to a 0.71 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 12.2 innings out of the pen. Look for Showalter to keep him in the bullpen for the duration of the 2013 season.
Set free of the constraints of starting, Hunter let his fastball loose with impressive results. Some pitchers just simply take to the bullpen role, and it appears the big boy from Alabama is one of them. Continued relief work will build Hunter's confidence and comfort in the role.
Buck Showalter's bullpen roles were fairly fluid in 2012, with Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day, Luis Ayala, and a myriad of other pitchers getting outs in the eighth inning depending on the situation.
The manager will likely employ the same strategy this season. Fully defined bullpen roles can often leave a manager hamstrung, but Showalter should give serious consideration to making Hunter his go-to eighth inning guy. This will allow Showalter to play the matchups in the sixth and seventh innings before turning the ball over to Hunter and Jim Johnson.
If Hunter is able to handle the physical demands of pitching in relief and pitch as he did at the end of last season, Orioles opponents will face a steep uphill battle in the last two innings.
My heart goes out to Brian Roberts. The Orioles' diminutive second baseman is one of the few holdovers from the majority of the lean years and was once considered the future face of the Orioles. From 2004 to 2009, he was arguably the No. 1 leadoff hitter in the game. During that time span, no one hit doubles like Brian Roberts.
The 2013 campaign should have been a dream season for Roberts. A rejuvenating year, if you will, washing away all the losing he endured as he basked in the glow of his first winning season as a professional baseball player.
Instead, he spent it as he has spent each of the last three seasons, namely rehabbing. Be it a concussion, or an abdominal strain or a torn labrum, Roberts has rehabbed and rehabbed and fought to get back on the field, only to see his hopes dashed by another injury.
I, for one, do not think Roberts is injury-prone or fragile. He simply plays the game hard—as it was meant to be played.
If Roberts returns to the field healthy in 2013, he will provide an element the Orioles offense missed all of last year, a talented, true leadoff hitter. Nick Markakis handled the role well, but he was never meant to be a leadoff hitter. Neither was the previously mentioned Nate McLouth. Roberts is the only player on the Orioles roster who can fill the role of leadoff hitter.
That is why Brian Roberts is the most important player to watch this spring training. If he is healthy, the Orioles lineup is instantly better. Nick Markakis can bat second as he always should have. The heart of the order will be Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis. This will allow JJ Hardy to move out of the two-spot he is ill-suited for and will not put undue stress on McLouth to produce as a leadoff hitter.
The Orioles lineup is already very strong. Having a true leadoff hitter will put it over the top.