Despite adding pop, Orioles face steep climb

Steve Henson
Jeremy Guthrie is a model of consistency in an Orioles pitching staff of question marks

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Baltimore Orioles.

2010 record: 66-96
Finish: Fifth place, AL East
Final 2010 payroll: $73.2 million
Estimated payroll on opening day: $72 million

Offseason action

The Orioles are the caboose on the American League East luxury liner that runs down the Eastern seaboard from Toronto to Tampa Bay. No matter how hard they chugga-chug-chug, they can't seem to avoid bringing up the rear. Baltimore has finished fifth in the division in each of the past three years – and fourth or fifth every year but one since 1997 (ascending to third in 2004). The Orioles have recorded 13 consecutive losing campaigns.

It is against that backdrop of bleak manifest destiny that the Orioles gamely attempt to build a competitive roster. The Red Sox and Yankees outspend them by factors of two and three, respectively, the Rays out-think them and the Blue Jays are usually a tick better.

Most free agents don't want to play for the Orioles because the chances of winning are remote and the schedule is daunting. Agents use Baltimore as a foil to drive up prices for their clients. Those who do sign are often the aged and infirm. Building from within and making shrewd trades are the Orioles' best hopes, and this offseason brought more hope than usual.

Leveraging the inflated currency of young, live arms, Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail exchanged two players for power-hitting third baseman Mark Reynolds(notes) and another two for shortstop J.J. Hardy(notes) and backup infielder Brendan Harris(notes). Free-agent first baseman and fabulous clubhouse presence Derrek Lee(notes) (see "aged and infirm," above) signed for one year, and suddenly the Orioles have an infield that could produce 80 to 90 home runs.

Combined with consistent producers in second baseman Brian Roberts(notes), designated hitter Luke Scott(notes) and outfielders Nick Markakis(notes) and Adam Jones(notes), the additions should enable Baltimore to improve an offense that ranked next to last in the AL in runs and 11th in home runs and on-base percentage. And maybe catcher Matt Wieters(notes) will blossom in his third season.

Reality check

Kevin Gregg(notes) was signed to compete with Koji Uehara(notes) for the closer role, but otherwise the pitching staff wasn't bolstered. That's a problem considering it ranked 27th in ERA and 28th in strikeouts in 2010. Oh, and Orioles pitchers surrendered more home runs than any staff besides the Diamondbacks.

Jeremy Guthrie(notes) grinds out quality starts and Brian Matusz(notes) showed signs in the second half of fulfilling his potential of joining CC Sabathia(notes), Jon Lester(notes) and David Price(notes) as an AL East left-hander whom hitters dread facing. Otherwise, the starting rotation is subpar and the bullpen is shaky. There, the good news is confined to the fact that only one member, Alfredo Simon(notes), was involved in an offseason shooting.

Pitching woes are thus nearly certain to weigh down the Orioles in any valiant attempt to escape the cellar.

Manager Buck Showalter infused the dugout with professionalism, urgency and a can-do spirit when he took over in August. The result: a 34-23 finish. Still, the Orioles were 29 games under .500 for the season, finishing 30 games behind the division-winning Rays and 19 behind the fourth-place Blue Jays. Even if the offense is robust and Showalter forceful, escaping last place will be a long, arduous slog.

Orioles in haiku

Brooks and Cal recall
Birds soaring, pennants flapping
Oh where are those O's

Next: Colorado Rockies