Pitching, defense key to success
Orioles hope blueprint can vault them atop AL East heap
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The evidence is right in front of them, the example clear to follow. The Orioles can't help but look at the Rays' rapid transformation to a team reliant on pitching, speed and defense without thinking of how the same core elements can turn their trajectory around.
And after a winter spent working toward that end, Baltimore will get its first look at the end results in Wednesday's Spring Training opener against the Mets at 1:05 p.m. ET. Andy MacPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations, is up front and honest about his team's ambition to mimic the Rays.
"It's certainly something we're going to value and emphasize throughout our organization," MacPhail said Tuesday of pitching and defense. "They vastly improved their pitching -- both their starting and their bullpen -- and it's not as easy to measure, but they also made significant improvements in their defense. They were ranked 14th in the American League in 2007 with making outs on balls put in play, and that moved up to the best in 2008. I think that goes hand-in-hand with the imporvement they enjoyed in their pitching, and while they scored less runs, they improved their won-loss record by 31 games. And they did it in a very tough division."
Much like Tampa Bay, Baltimore has focused on stockpiling pitching prospects in bulk. And also like their divisional rivals, the Orioles have gone out of their way to improve their defense overnight.
Shortstop Cesar Izturis and left fielder Felix Pie were brought in for that express purpose, and Baltimore further improved its flexibility by acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel in exchange for catcher Ramon Hernandez. And with Gregg Zaun -- and later top prospect Matt Wieters -- behind the plate, catcher should be a net improvement as well.
Those moves are clear enough in their own right, and when added to holdovers and defensive stalwarts like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, they present an even clearer picture. Baltimore is still a work in progress, but when the pitching arrives, it shouldn't take long to make a move toward contention.
That was the lesson taken by manager Dave Trembley through the early days of Spring Training, and one he felt comfortable underlining after Baltimore's 4-0 exhibition win over Team Italy on Tuesday.
"Today was a blueprint for our future. There's absolutely no question about that," Trembley said. "Our future is going to be based upon strong starting pitching, the ability to catch the ball -- especially up the middle -- and an everyday guy behind the plate. ... We've said [we're going to be] a National League-style club competing in the American League East. I think that's a fair assessment. When I came over in 2007, that's kind of what we envisioned we would have to do."
Zaun, who came over as a free agent after spending a few years with the Jays, is a big believer in the newfound organizational philosophy. He knows that if the Orioles are going to break their 11-season streak of losing records, they'll need a steady defense they can rely on and an ever-growing core of top-flight pitchers.
"I think this team has had the ability to hit for quite some time, and the pitching and defense haven't been quite there," said Zaun. "Pitching, defense and timely hitting is a winning combination in any division. It's going to take some trust and some patience. We need to focus on the process and not on the immediate gratification. Forget about riding the emotional roller coaster -- being high when you have a good outing and low when things don't go well."
The pitching roll call gets deeper every season. The Orioles have Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman sitting atop a stack of other promising pitching prospects, fleshing out the organizational depth. Baltimore also has Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez and Troy Patton coming through the upper-level pipeline.
All of those pitchers had a hand in the O's four-hit combined shutout of Team Italy, and Trembley said he could sense the appetite for more success from the team's bumper crop of prospects.
"I saw some guys running liners today after they got done and it looked like they were two feet off the ground," said Trembley after Tuesday's exhibition. "I know there was a lot of excitement out here today. Today is a very big day for the direction this team is going, to expose these guys and to get them out there."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.