The Orioles entered spring training with an abundance of optimism.
New cleanup hitter. New bullpen. Three new infielders. New outlook and lease on life with Buck Showalter, who took over as manager late last season.
But spring training showed that they have the same old injury concerns.
Brian Roberts continues to battle back trouble, and newly acquired first baseman Derrek Lee has been hampered by the after-effects of offseason wrist surgery.
The optimism around the club has been dampened somewhat, but most analysts believe the team will approach -- if not surpass -- the .500 mark for the first time in 13 seasons.
Aside from health, the Orioles' success rests on the arms of its young rotation. The progress of left-hander Brian Matusz and right-handers Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen was a welcome sight in late 2010.
If that trio can continue to grow under Showalter and new pitching coach Mark Connor, the club will assuredly improve.
Wieters, the can't-miss prospect of two seasons ago, is penciled into the No. 8 spot in the order. If he reaches his offensive potential, the lineup could be devastating.
The Orioles might be a contender for part of 2011, but even with the veteran upgrades -- Lee, Vladimir Gurerrero, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy -- added to the roster, the true success of the club will be determined by its young arms and young bats.
If those contributors can remain healthy, that is.
--C/INF Jake Fox might have hit his way onto the Opening Day roster. Fox has been near the top of the American League in home runs all spring. He offers the ability to play multiple positions -- first base and the outfield, aside from catcher -- and some serious pinch-hitting pop from the right side. Fox might have beaten out C Craig Tatum for the backup job, or at least carved out a spot for himself alongside Tatum on the Orioles' bench.
--RHP Kevin Gregg has gone back to his old mechanics after experimenting with a new delivery yielded ugly results. Gregg told the Baltimore Sun that by leaning forward as he released the ball, he was falling off to the third base side, keeping his pitches from breaking across the plate. If Gregg falters, the back-up plan for closer would have been RHP Koji Uehara, who has been battling elbow discomfort this spring.
--2B Brian Roberts said his goal remains to play for the Orioles on Opening Day. Roberts played on Opening Day and the next three games in 2010, but missed about four months because a back injury that still plagues him. The club has not sounded the alarm about Roberts' injury, and the presence of INF Cesar Izturis -- last year's starter at shortstop -- eases some concerns about Roberts missing extended time.
--3B/1B Josh Bell still stands a chance of making the Opening Day roster, particularly if 1B Derrek Lee has to start the season on the disabled list. Bell could provide a three-headed platoon at the position, with Fox and LF/DH Luke Scott. In all likelihood, though, Bell is destined for Class AAA Norfolk.
--LF Luke Scott has struggled with the bat this spring, but that might be a good sign for what might come in early April. A notoriously streaky hitter, Scott was 2-for-27 to start the spring. In the past, he has gone on two-week tears that carry the Orioles' offense for a stretch. This spring, Scott has been shuffled around defensively, playing first base and left field. He's locked into the No. 5 slot in the lineup.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Runs allowed by RHP Kevin Greg in 1 1/3 innings in an exhibition game this spring.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "For a guy like me, my margin for error is really small because I am fighting against guys that have more talent than I have. I am fighting against guys that are bigger, faster, stronger." -- C/INF Jake Fox, to the Baltimore Sun, on his mentality for trying to make the ball club.
The Orioles are one of the most improved clubs in baseball -- on paper. Whether that generates more wins, or the fan base's target of a winning record, will play out over the course of the season. The club enters April with arguably the most optimism in a decade, but it still might have to settle for fourth place, even with a good year by its own standards.
1. RHP Jeremy Guthrie
2. LHP Brian Matusz
3. RHP Jake Arrieta
4. RHP Brad Bergesen
5. RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Justin Duchscherer and LHP Zach Britton remain wild cards for the No. 5 spot. Duchscherer had the inside track in February, but lingering hip issues put his spot on the roster in question. Britton, who has yet to make his major league debut, wowed team officials early in camp. The Orioles would like him to get more seasoning in the minors. Guthrie is the probable Opening Day starter, although manager Buck Showalter hadn't announced it as of two weeks from the opener. There's been little competition for the first four spots in the rotation.
RHP Kevin Gregg (closer)
RHP Koji Uehara
RHP Jim Johnson
LHP Mike Gonzalez
RHP Jeremy Accardo
RHP Jason Berken
LHP Mark Hendrickson
The club signed Gregg with the intent that he would take the closer's job from Uehara. Does either one want it? Gregg has struggled, and Uehara has battled injury. It's possible the club could have two or three relievers on the Opening Day roster who aren't listed above, simply because of injury. Johnson, Gonzalez and Berken are all coming off injuries. Berken looked like an all-star in the first half, and could be the key to the bullpen in 2011. If Accardo can rediscover his form that made him a formidable closer in Toronto, the bullpen could be a strength. LHP Clay Rapada could beat out Hendrickson for the second southpaw role, and RHP David Riske has an outside shot to crack the roster.
1. 2B Brian Roberts
2. RF Nick Markakis
3. 1B Derrek Lee
4. DH Vladimir Guerrero
5. LF Luke Scott
6. CF Adam Jones
7. 3B Mark Reynolds
8. C Matt Wieters
9. SS J.J. Hardy
Health concerns surround two of the most critical holes in the lineup -- leadoff and the No. 3 hitter. Roberts is battling back issues, while Lee is hampered by a surgically-repaired wrist. Markakis can bat third if Lee is out, and the Orioles have options at first base. But there's no legit fill-in for Roberts in the leadoff spot if he remains out for an extended period. On paper, the lineup looks much tougher than any recent incarnation in Baltimore. Guerrero provides protection for Markakis, who has never batted in front of a legitimate No. 4 hitter. The club also has moved Jones and Wieters into less-critical spots in the order to allow them to grow on the job.
C/1B Jake Fox
INF Cesar Izturis
OF Felix Pie
The battles come down to Fox -- who has been atop the American League in home runs this spring -- and Craig Tatum for the back-up catcher's job. Fox has versatility in the ability to play first and the outfield. Tatum is the better defensive catcher. Pie and Reimold were slated to platoon in left field until the club signed Guerrero. It's possible one of the two could be traded, or Reimold could be sent to Class-AAA Norfolk. INFs Brendan Ryan, Robert Andino and Josh Bell could also find their way onto the club.
--2B Brian Roberts (back) hopes to be ready for Opening Day, but that's in doubt.
--RHP Justin Duchscherer (sore left hip) had a dye-injection exam in mid-March on his surgically repaired hip, and it didn't reveal any structural damage. It was unclear when he would pitch again, making it uncertain whether he'd be ready to join the season-opening rotation.
--1B Derrek Lee (right wrist) is battling tendinitis but hopes to be ready for Opening Day.