On a freshly cut field in Sarasota, the sun is shining while four or five Orioles take batting practice. Adam Jones punishes room-service fastballs as Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis share a laugh. A new day shimmers as baseball is in the air. Little does this team know, they are the future.
Matt Wieters has been dubbed about everything but "The Chosen One", and the catcher looks to assume a role of leadership in the near future as his maturity catches up to his level of success. For now, he is content to get his share of at-bats and hit the ball with authority, the pressure of a pennant race not yet upon him.
Don't look now, but the pressure of a pennant race looms in the distance. The pressure, the anxiety, the glory, all of it resting in Camden Yards and patiently waiting. The race to the pennant begins in April, and the chase of a title waits to greet the Orioles at the end of Spring Training.
It is through shrewd talent evaluation and smart baseball decisions that Baltimore baseball has come this far, and in a division with financial moguls New York and Boston, along with small-market powerhouse Tampa Bay, the Orioles will be tested everyday from April to October. It is just the Major League financial model that has thrown this naive bunch of ballplayers into the thick of contention in what has become the toughest division in baseball.
They call it the American League East.
You see, it has always been the nature of baseball to pit second-tier cities against one another to see who can use their resources in the more wise of ways. It is then that a winner of that battle can hope to conquer the bigger markets, the Majors' favored child, through both skill and luck. While the Goliath Yankees and Red Sox rest on their laurels with new acquisitions Curtis Granderson and John Lackey, among others, respectively, here come the Orioles and Rays to give them a literal "run for their money".
The Rays come into this season with a chip on their shoulder. After a magical 2008 run, they fell short of the playoffs last year. Team leader Evan Longoria knows what they need to get back there.
"We have to have that same feeling, that same drive [that we had in 2008], where we're not worrying about what anybody else is doing, we're just worrying about what we're doing day in and day out and just trying to take it one day at a time," said the star third baseman.
It will be a challenging task nonetheless, as the on-the-rise Orioles will give them something to worry about, "day in and day out". The team is a rare glimpse into the correct way to build a ballclub. The core is homegrown, with Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Brian Roberts, and Wieters all coming through the Oriole system and the Erik Bedard trade having netted Jones while he was in the minors
Also, the roster is supplemented with the occasional "outsider", with Kevin Millwood and Miguel Tejada rounding out the true strength of this talent-laden roster. It is a model utilized by many successful MLB teams. The Twins, on a budget smaller than Dustin Pedroia's foot, have become a perennial contender through careful attention to the draft and talent development. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, faces of the franchise, are the fruits of the Twins' meticulous system for manufacturing contention.
On the other side of the spectrum, look at the big market Phillies. While their front office could have exploited free agency and salary dump trades, their minor league system has rewarded them well with ballplayers such as epic slugger Ryan Howard, tough-nosed Chase Utley, cult hero Jayson Werth, and former World Series MVP Cole Hamels. Supplement this with the occasional move, such as the Cliff Lee trade (only made possible by the mammoth depth of the Phillies' minor league system), and you have a squad that has reached the World Series the last two years, even winning one.
So it is the Orioles, with a well-put-together roster, that should make noise in this year's American League East. While the Red Sox went out in the offseason and made defensive splashes to offset the offensive production they lost from Jason Bay's departure, and the Yankees made their team from 'WOW' to 'WOW!' by making moves for both Javier Vazquez and Curtis Granderson, how could anyone count out the young Orioles?
While it is no secret that the young Oriole lineup will contribute heavily to their projected success in 2010, don't count out their young pitching staff from the mix, either. Led by grizzled veteran Kevin Millwood, the rotation finally has a leader. Millwood, a laid-back leader, was instrumental in mentoring such pitchers as Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland last year for future success, even if Holland's numbers didn't show that.
This year's Oriole staff is littered with up-and-coming pitchers, such as Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz. Also, look out for Jeremy Guthrie to have a bounce-back year, as he will be able to settle into the middle of the rotation and not have to assume the leadership role he wasn't ready for in 2009. This will allow him to concentrate on pitching and solely pitching.
Not only should the rotation find success, but the back end of the bullpen is not something that will keep Orioles fans awake at night. Former shutdown closer Mike Gonzalez will be his former self now that he no longer has to be questioned about his role when he comes to the ballpark, as he was with the Braves. In Atlanta, Gonzalez could be utilized as a seventh, eighth, or ninth-inning guy on any given day. Now in Baltimore, he is relied upon solely to shut down any late game save situation.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
And so it is the impending season of 2010 that looms in the distance, and the summer that whispers all of our names as we return to congregate for America's true national pastime. The laughing stock of baseball for too many years, the Orioles, are nothing to joke with now.
And that is why these orange birds are flying under the radar.