The American League East is already loaded with talent and top-notch teams, but it would be a much better division if the Baltimore Orioles, behind the Red Sox and Yankees the franchise with the most tradition, could ever get their act together.
There is some talent there, and the albatross contracts that loomed over the organization for a decade are largely gone. There is also a "new" manager, Buck Showalter, who righted another sinking ship late last year and gave the O's something to build on entering 2011.
Now that he has given his team a dose of confidence, will Showalter be able to take this team to the next level? Although Red Sox fans would like to continue to flood Camden Yards for win after win after win (2010 notwithstanding), the division would be that much more fun if he can.
Something Showalter did last year had to have an effect. The Orioles were an atrocious 32-73 before he took over in August, and they were 34-23 after, a record which led the power-packed division down the stretch. It wasn't nearly enough to avoid a third straight last-place finish, but it served notice to all those wondering if the current collection of players could win at a consistent clip.
In 2011, they just might. There are four projected starting pitchers in their mid-20s, each of whom has been highly regarded at one time or another and one of whom, Brian Matusz, showed he might be ready to make the leap. The infield has something to offer at each position, with power at the corners and capability up the middle in longtime Oriole Brian Roberts and new shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Adam Jones patrols center field with 25-25 potential, and right fielder Nick Markakis is a steady doubles machine with a cannon for an arm. Felix Pie, if he can stay healthy, could be a nice piece in left.
Behind the plate is the future of the catching position, if everything that was said about Matt Wieters is true. And your designated hitter is Luke Scott, whose overbearing stance on politics takes nothing away from his ability to hit (27 homers in 131 games last year).
While the bullpen remains an issue, with one of its arms now a murder suspect, Baltimore has the potential to have a decent rotation and a pretty solid lineup one through nine.
But what about Showalter? What makes him such a spark? It's not as if he lights up a room with his personality, which is marked by a somewhat serious tone and a classic scowl. He's never overly animated or a guy that instantly inspires his charges. But maybe that's it. Maybe the Orioles have needed a little more no-nonsense in their makeup. Perhaps there was a desire for someone to let the players know that they needed to perform or face the consequences, either with their job or as a perpetual punch line.
That can't be all of it, but it's worked for Showalter in other places where talent and youth had yet to translate to anything special.
Joe Torre gets all the credit for guiding the New York Yankees to four World Series titles in five years, but the man who came before him laid out the course. That man, of course, was Showalter, who helped engineer a dramatic turnaround in the Bronx. Not long before Showalter arrived in New York, this was where the Yankees were. He had a .469 winning percentage in his first year at the helm (1992), a .543 mark in his second and a .619 in his third.
Showalter then used his fourth and final season as Yankees manager to usher them into the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. For that, and for an apparent disconnect with George Steinbrenner (God forbid), he was canned, and New York won it all the next year.
A few years later, Showalter was the first manager in Arizona Diamondbacks history. They won 65 games in 1998, that inaugural year, before exploding for 100 in their second, becoming the fastest expansion team to win a division title. When the third year in franchise history resulted in "only" 85 wins, Showalter was again kicked to the curb. Arizona won it all the next year under Bob Brenly.
The Texas Rangers had won no more than 73 games in the three seasons before Showalter arrived in Arlington in 2003. In 2004, they won 89. Two years later, Showalter was gone again, a casualty of mediocrity in a town that had never experienced any more than that on the diamond.
It's probably too much to compare Showalter to Bill Parcells, one of the iconic coaches in NFL history and a two-time champion of his sport, but Buck's ability to turn things around is akin to the Big Tuna's. If what Showalter did in 2010 with the Orioles is the beginning of another rise to the top, perhaps that comparison will ring true someday soon.
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