Spring Postcard: Orioles hope for right mix of youth and experience
Now that young players have gotten feet wet in majors, O's expect to win
O's hope veteran Kevin Millwood will aid development of Matusz, Tillman
Veteran acquisitions have been smarter; O's were happy to land Atkins
This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. Dave Trembley's job as manager has changed.
Trembley joined the Orioles' major-league staff prior to the 2007 season because of his track record with young players -- in 20 years as a minor-league manager, he won manager of the year awards at three different levels. He advanced to manager after the club fired Sam Perlozzo, and a certain leeway was given to him regarding the club's win-loss record (172-244 in two-and-a-half seasons) because Trembley was primarily charged with fostering the progression of the club's promising prospects. "It was not win at all costs with those guys," Trembley said.
Now, however, many of the organization's best young players -- from starters Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman to outfielder Nolan Reimold and catcher Matt Wieters -- have gotten their feet wet in the majors, and the expectation to win will be stronger. General manager Andy MacPhail admits that Trembley was dealt a difficult hand after he traded Erik Bedard, Miguel Tejada and George Sherrill, all for prospects. "[Owner Peter Angelos] and I told Dave, 'Look, we're to give you some young, talented kids, and your principle job is going to be to nurture their introduction into the major leagues,'" MacPhail said. "I think he accomplished that job as well as one could hope that he could. He deserves the opportunity to go on and continue to manage."
Said Trembley: "Now [my job] is to take player development to team development."
2. Starring in the next summer buddy movie: Matusz and Tillman.
The organization's top two pitching prospects -- Tillman, 21, a former second-round pick of the Mariners acquired in the Bedard trade and Matusz, 23, a No. 4 overall pick of the Orioles -- made their major-league debuts within a week of each other last summer. With nowhere else to live, the former minor-league spring training roommates turned to each other and fellow young pitcher David Hernandez, and three of them rented out the house of former O's pitcher Adam Loewen. They'd even carpool to the ballpark together.
Matusz and Tillman have become just about the best of friends and are living together again this spring in Sarasota. They say they won't be roommates again this season in Balitmore, but Tillman indicated they'll probably get apartments in the same complex. "It's huge to have that guy to talk to," Tillman said, "and if I'm doing something wrong, he won't be afraid to tell me."
To aid the development of their young arms, the Orioles traded for veteran starter Kevin Millwood, and then placed his locker directly between the two wunderkinds, each of whom is all but assured a spot in the starting rotation on Opening Day. Millwood is even helping Tillman learn to throw a cutter. While Tillman used his final two shaky starts as an "kick in the butt" of motivation this offseason, Matusz, Baseball America's No. 5 prospect, said he's looking to build off his final three starts, each of which were seven-inning wins.
3. The veteran acquisitions have been smarter.
The era of outlandish, multi-year free-agent contracts is over. There will be no more crippling handouts given away to players like Albert Belle and Danys Baez. Sure, the Orioles will still offer a long-term contract to the right player -- MacPhail said the club's interest in Mark Teixeira last offseason was "genuine" -- but it would take a "rare set of circumstances" to replicate that kind of an offer, such as a superstar player with no significant health risks entering the prime of his career. As for this offseason's free agents, MacPhail said Baltimore would only have considered Matt Holliday and, even then, only if his market price came down substantially.
Instead, Baltimore signed 31-year-old closer Mike Gonzalez to a two-year contract and then inked Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins (more on him below) to one-year deals. The Orioles also traded reliever Chris Ray for Millwood, who has one year left on his contract.
Not Done Yet
By MacPhail's estimation, Atkins was the third most-proven right-handed power hitter available in free agency, trailing only Jason Bay and Holliday. MacPhail admitted Atkins had a disastrous 2009 in Colorado, batting only .226 with nine homers. But the Orioles, with a lot of money off their payroll, were in a place to take a chance, and Atkins was looking for a hitting coach like the Orioles' Terry Crowley to help him return to form, leading to a perfectly symbiotic one-year, $4.5 million contract.
MacPhail said that after the All-Star break, when the temperatures and humidity soar in Baltimore, Camden Yards plays very small and that the division is getting more lefty-heavy with its pitchers. "Sometimes you just have to outbash the other guy, which is why Atkins was attractive to us."
Felix Pie and Reimold will both play, but the competition for the lion's share of playing time is under way. Reimold is the better offensive player -- he led the Orioles with an .831 OPS last season -- but he's returning from surgery for Achilles tendonitis and last year was slightly below-average with the glove. Pie, meanwhile, was a very good defensive left fielder despite making the switch from center field after arriving in Baltimore.
The best name in camp belongs to 24-year-old minor league pitcher Leo Lebron ... This is the Orioles' first year training in Sarasota after 14 in Fort Lauderdale. The facility at Ed Smith Stadium is already an improvement, they noted, with more renovations set to be completed next year. As for the change in cities, "it's a different city than last year," Jones said with a laugh, then diplomatically added that it's pleasantly "low key." It wasn't too much of a deterrent for the young outfielder, who arrived in camp at the same time as pitchers and catchers to get some extra work in ... Outfield coach John (T-Bone) Shelby said his outfielders now use smaller infield gloves during fielding practice, to sharpen their dexterity ... Former Packers GM Ron Wolf, who retired to Annapolis, Md., was spotted in Orioles camp.
MLB Truth & Rumors