As the calendar pages turn to the first day of March, most teams around the majors have already played five or six games, gearing up for the regular season a bit earlier than previous years.
Usually, spring training games do not begin until the first week of March. However, this year is a bit different due to the World Baseball Classic—Major League Baseball scheduled games to start earlier this season—and the Baltimore Orioles are off to a flying start.
Through their first six games, the Black and Orange have posted a 5-1 record, and although it's only spring training, and records do not matter, it's still encouraging that they have gotten off to the right start.
In fact, they strung together five consecutive victories to open spring training. The Twins handed them their first loss Thursday afternoon, 7-1.
Of course, records in spring training are like stolen bases—when a team is up by six runs, no one really pays attention.
So far, the Birds have played six of the 33 games scheduled this spring training (one was rained out against the Pirates). Although it's still early, and teams might not be fielding their "best" team per se, if you're an Orioles fan, it's been a great first week of baseball already!
Over the first six days of training camp, there have been a couple of standout players, both offensively and on the mound. First, I'll highlight some of the offensive breakout stars, and then I'll round out the rest of the piece with a couple of hurlers who have turned heads on the rubber.
Some of these names you might be familiar with. However, there are a couple of names on the list who might be a surprise, or even someone who you have not heard about yet.
Check out my list and let me know what you think.
The standout offensive player this February has been former Oriole and Yankee outfielder Steve Pearce. Last season, he spent time briefly with three clubs. He began the '12 season with the Birds, then was shipped to the National League for a quick stop with the Astros. He finished the year in New York.
This season, however, he is competing for a bench role as a backup outfielder. There is tough competition in the outfield this season, as the starters are pretty much already in place. Of course, All-Star Nick Markakis will man right field, Gold Glove winner Adam Jones will patrol center and Nate McLouth will most likely round out the outfield in left.
However, there is always a need for backup outfielders, and Pearce is making a very strong case for his name to be first on the list. Although he has played just two of the six games this week—which is normal during spring training—his bat is on fire.
In his six at-bats, he's collected four base hits, including a double and a home run, and leads the team with six RBI. Not to mention, he's scored a couple of runs. One has to wonder why he is not in the lineup every day, but again, everyone gets a chance to prove themselves at this junction in the season; Pearce is taking full advantage of his chances.
Over 159 at-bats last season, he managed to lace eight doubles, but finished hitting just .239 on the year, which might be due to the fact that he split time with three different squads; he spent more time learning his new coaches, teammates and new venues than focusing on hitting.
Maybe if he spends a full season with the Birds, he will have a breakout season. At least, that's what Showalter and the rest of his coaching staff are hoping. He's off to an explosive start, and if he keeps this up, it will be hard to deny him a backup spot.
One of the major question marks this upcoming season is: How will Brian Roberts do, and will he be able to revert back to his heyday four years ago when he broke out with a record 56 doubles by a switch-hitter?
Roberts has always been one of my favorite Orioles and for good reason. He is a spark at the top of the order, a doubles machine, he plays hard and sets a good example for the rest of the team.
Three times in his career he has recorded 50 or more doubles in a single season.
He's spent his entire career with the Birds, and he is a .280 hitter with 84 home runs and 482 RBI. Known for his speed, he’s swiped 275 bases and drilled 339 doubles. He holds the Orioles record for doubles in a season and the AL record for doubles by a switch-hitter.
Last season, Roberts only compiled 66 at-bats, all of which were out of the lead off position. He batted .182 (12-for-66) with no home runs and five RBI in limited action. Over the last three seasons, he's struggled to stay in the lineup as he's succumbed to injury each year.
However, over the first week of spring training, it seems like the doubles-machine is back. The North Carolina native is 3-for-8, including two doubles and two runs scored in three games.
I've added him to the breakout stars list because no one really knows what they are going to get from Roberts after he basically missed two-and-a-half years. Hopefully, he continues to swing a hot bat and he returns to the top of the order in his old form.
The third breakout star for the Birds over the first week of the season has been another outfield hopeful, former Mariner Trayvon Robinson. Although they Birds lost one of their fan favorites and utility players, Robert Andino, in a trade this past offseason, the 26-year-old Robinson is turning heads so far this spring.
Robinson can play all three positions in the outfield, is young and is also a switch-hitter, which bodes well for him because there are not too many outfielders who can play all positions while switch-hitting; it seems like he is the complete package.
So far over the first week of action, Robinson is hitting .375 (3-for-8) with one home run, a double, two RBI and three runs scored in two games. Not to mention, he has yet to start a game, which is obviously a very good sign for him as it proves he can enter the game and still can produce. What can he do if he gets four to five at-bats during a game?
Although it's a longshot that he will make the team out of spring training (especially with Pearce's explosion and Reimold carrying more weight, since he has been around the organization for longer), if he continues to show power and speed, he has a good chance of being first on the call-up list when needed.
Last season with the Mariners, the Los Angeles native hit just .221 in 145 at-bats, including three home runs, 12 RBI, 16 runs and six stolen bases. Although he struggled a bit in limited action, he has never been given a chance to really prove himself at the major league level.
There is no doubt that he has the tools to become a good major league outfielder. The question is whether or not he can hone all of his skills and put them together to excel at the top of his game.
All eyes are on flame-throwing, top prospect (ranked number two on Baseball America) Dylan Bundy, who debuted last September at the age of 19 against the Boston Red Sox. Like his former teammate Manny Machado (who debuted when he was 20 last August), he is highly watched and speculated about; he's the next big prospect.
There's no doubt he will be called up at some point during the season. The question is: When, and will he make the team out of spring training? The answer to the latter is: Most likely not, and that's probably a good thing for both him and the Birds.
He needs time to work on his stuff at the minor league level and continue to develop and learn how to pitch against major league hitters. Last season, he spent time with the Delmarva Shorebirds and the Frederick Keys, but he has not spent any time in Double A or Triple A.
Most likely, he will begin the season with the Double A Bowie Baysox and work his way up to the big leagues. This spring, he has appeared in two games (both relief appearances) and has yet to allow an earned run. Hitters are batting .250 off the young, right-handed hurler. In his three innings of work, he has punched out three opponents and issued two free passes.
Last season with the Orioles, he tossed 1.2 innings, surrendered one base hit and issued one walk in two outings. Although he failed to record his first major league strike out, that will surely come very quickly after his first appearance this season.
Everyone is excited to see this young phenom take the mound in 2013, and if he continues to pitch as well as he has this spring, it might not be too long until he becomes a fixture in the starting rotation.
Another breakout star for the Orioles in the pitching department has to be one of the no-name hurlers on the spring training roster. Most fans probably have not heard the name Todd Redmond before, but so far he is putting on quite an impressive show.
The 27-year-old Florida native is another potential fifth starter for the Orioles and is vying for that one coveted spot in the rotation. Although most are unaware of Redmond, he's putting up quite a fight for the opportunity.
Last season, he pitched just 3.1 innings for the Reds and was roughed up in his outings; he allowed four earned runs and struck out just two opponents. In his career in the minors, he's appeared in over 200 contest, mostly as a starter, and he sports a respectable 3.58 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP.
Although there is an unlikely chance he will make the opening-day roster, he is trying his hardest to make Showalter's decision as difficult as possible.
In two appearances this spring, the right-hander has tossed three innings, has yet to surrender an earned run, struck out four batters and issued two free passes. Not to mention, opponents are hitting just .182 off of him.
Along with Pedro Strop, who has also yet to give up an earned run over his two innings of work, he leads the team in strikeouts at this early stage in the spring.
Unless he continues to dominate the spring, he most likely will start the season in the minor leagues, either Double A Bowie or Triple A Norfolk. But there's a good chance that we will see this young righty at some point in the 2013 season.
Finally, another impressive hurler out of the Orioles pitching staff so far this spring has been 25-year-old Steve Johnson, who spent some time in the starting rotation last year and turned many heads.
No one really had heard of Johnson, not to be confused with their star closer, Jim Johnson. At least, I had never heard of him before he debuted for the Birds last year. Surprisingly, he was one of the top starters when he was given a chance.
Last season, the right-handed Baltimore native posted a 4-0 record with a stellar 2.11 ERA in 38.1 innings pitched. Although he pitched better out of the pen (1-0, 1.10 ERA in eight appearances), he still recorded impressive numbers as a starting pitcher.
In the rotation, Johnson made four starts going 3-0, compiled 22 innings of work and allowed just 16 base hits and seven earned runs (2.86 ERA). What's even more impressive is his strikeout numbers. In 16.1 innings in relief, he punched out 21 opponents, and as a starter he struck out 25 opponents.
So far over the first week of spring training, he's tossed three innings, including two scoreless against the Yankees on Wednesday and has yet to allow an earned run. He's racked up three punch outs, issued two walks and batters are hitting just .111 off of him.
Since the Orioles have a number of starting pitchers vying for a spot in the five-man rotation, it's going to be very tough for the young RHP to earn a spot. However, if he continues pitching as well as he has, there's no doubt that he will be in the future plans for the Birds.
He is only 25 years old and still needs to gain more experience at the major league level. He might start the season out of the bullpen as a long man and work his way into the rotation. Or, if something goes wrong in the rotation or someone falters—you never know—he could be the fifth starter.
So far this spring, the Orioles have been very impressive. Pitching-wise, with a few exceptions, the Birds staff is 4-0 with three saves, a .360 ERA and opponents are hitting .273 on the young season.
Although I only mentioned four pitchers who have excelled this spring, there are numerous others who have yet to give up an earned run. I chose those four hurlers because they have the most innings pitcher and have recorded the most strikeouts.
However, most of the Birds' pitchers have gotten off to strong starts this first week. It will be interesting to see if they continue to throw as well over the next month of spring training.
As for the offense, the Birds' lineup is batting a collective .286 over the first week as they've recorded 48 base hits (an average of eight base hits per game) and they've scored 30 runs (five per game).
So, like I've mentioned throughout the piece, although the season is young and spring training numbers should not be emphasized heavily, the Birds are playing well and there have been some breakout stars thus far over the first week.
This season is very promising for the Orioles, and like I've written many times this offseason, it's going to be even tougher than last season, especially since the Blue Jays have revamped their starting rotation and lineup.
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