Showalter still not at loss for words

Orioles manager gaining confidence heading into 2012.

Buck Showalter certainly didn't hold anything back at Orioles Fan Fest in January. In characteristic fashion the manager, who has made an out spoken name for himself over the course of four managerial jobs, spent almost twice as much time talking back stage with reporters as anyone else. On top of that, he and General Manager Dan Duquette spent over 40 minutes on stage in front of fans to kick off the day. It was a great opportunity for Baltimore's leading man to reintroduce himself to fans and media. It was also a great chance for him to send messages to his players early on about competition and the expectations for them this season. All told, it was a characteristic way for the often meticulous Showalter to re-introduce himself to the public on the eve of the 2012 season. It was also a pretty optimistic conversation.

“I look at the upgrades we've made with the 40 man roster [at] about 10 or 15 spots…you take the player that came off [the roster] and [look at] what I feel is an upgrade, you [see] the depth that we added,” said Showalter of the off season moves and acquisitions the Orioles have made. He also praised Duquette's work building off of what Buck and ex-GM Andy MacPhail began in 2011. “Dan's taken on some of the good work that Andy got done in trying to continue down that road,” said Showalter of how the GM has already bolstered the O's roster.

The optimism continued as he talked about the difference between now and this time last year. “Last year I kind of knew going into it, even though we had finished strong the year before, that our pitching still had to go through some of the process,” Buck said of his young staff's continued development and the growth they have experienced. “This year I think we're, I don't wanna beat the drums too much, but I kind of like where we are mentally.”

Buck isn't delusional about where the team finished last year, fully acknowledging that the pitching rotation in the second half of the season amounted to, in his words, a game of “last man standing.” While it is easy to find a number of areas that the Orioles are looking to improve in, the primary talk at Fan Fest surrounded the revamped pitching staff. “You look at the different clubs that are ahead of us [they] have that depth,” said Buck of clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. He talked about how in the Spring it's a matter of creating enough innings and games to evaluate the talent properly. “We will get in innings,” Showalter said of exhibitions and inter-squad scrimmages to complement the regular slate of spring training games. “We've designated the 11 or 12 guys where we're going [to] look at that capacity.”

Buck wasn't shy about going through the various rotation possibilities, listing many of them along with a comment or two on how their off season went. On Tommy Hunter losing substantial weight in the off season and the potential negative effects; “I could go out and lose 20 pounds in a month but I may be weak…I mean I don't know if I could do it or not, especially during bowl season.” On Jake Arrietta's off-season progress coming back from injury; “Jake was interesting…Jake was great,” he said of their 2011 Camden Yards Opening Day starter. On Matusz and Britton; “Brian Matusz had a great off-season, Zach [too]. They've all [been] with Brady and Dave Walker down in Sarasota.” He continued by talking about their approach to motivating the young staff, “It's something we're gonna stay on top of… we're in a good spot in the process of the young pitchers.” He further talked about how their trial by fire has prepared them for this season. “All the things…they had to go through to get to the point where they should be able to bite like a big dog, should be able to happen if they have the ability.”

Still, he acknowledged the pressure that exists for the young staff even if, in his words, the group of pitchers on stage at the time of his interview didn't look at all nervous. While most of them are still very much in their mid-20s, the onus on a bunch of former high draft picks to start flashing some upper tier results is there. “They…know, and I've heard them talk about it, there's a fine line between being a prospect and suspect,” said Buck. “They know it's time to you-know-what or get off the pot. It's part of the gig, they understand it.”

The talk about pitching depth eventually segued into talk about the international additions made to the roster in Wei-Yen Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. Apart from the jokes about Matt Wieter's now well documented run-ins with Rosetta Stone software, Showalter was very serious about the potential of both players, particularly Chen. The Taiwanese import spent four very successful seasons in Japan's Central League before signing a three year deal with the Orioles in the off season. While his numbers in Japan's professional ranks were impressive there's something else that has Buck excited. “The interesting thing about Chen is that you usually don't get the Asian players at 25, 26 years old, it's 31, 32 sometimes,” said Buck of Chen's youth. “That's what made he and [Texas Rangers Japanese signee Yu Darvish] so attractive to so many people. It's quite a coup.”

Indeed, Buck continued by highlighting how important landing big time foreign free agents is for a ball club in terms of dollars and prospects, not just on field performance. “The great thing about the Asian players is that you don't have to…give up players, you don't have to lose people in the June draft,” said Buck of acquiring Chen without trading prospects or draft picks. “They don't preclude you from doing something else with your payroll.” The combination of both baseball and team building benefits may be why the Orioles have shifted a decent amount of their focus to the overseas market, particularly Asia. Whether it will pay off remains to be seen.

Still, pitching wasn't the only thing on Buck's mind. He spent a good amount of time ironing out the questions surrounding the infield corner positions occupied by Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis. Unfortunately he still hadn't completely figured out which of the corner in-field positions Davis and Reynolds would be playing come April. “Mark did make [5] errors in a short time at 1st base too, but if you look at what he's done this offseason…he's 15 to 20 pounds lighter than he was last spring, he looks great,” said Showalter of the man who put up 37 home runs last year and spent most of his time at third. Buck said he wasn't sure about Davis' shoulder holding up at third base over the course of the season, and that he put him there temporarily to see how he would hold up. As it stands now, Davis will continue at third to start the year, with Reynolds at first. “We know that Chris is going to be an above average defensive third baseman and we think Mark's a lot better than he showed last year,” said Buck of the where the players stand heading in Sarasota. “Could it change? Potentially, but I don't see it.”

There was a general theme amongst the answers coming from the O's players at Fan Fest this year, particularly the pitchers. As each one was asked about all of the competition they would be facing for various jobs on the team, they all responded similarly. Almost unilaterally each said that internal competition was good for the team (particularly the pitching staff) and that they were excited about it. Of course some of that may be typical sports speak and bravado, but the consistency of the answers evoked one of Showalter's well known managerial traits; control. Buck is noted for over-seeing every aspect of the team he coaches, and he certainly seems to believe in the power of competition. It's no surprise then that each of his players would be on the same page when it came to what they thought about the forthcoming battles for roster spots in February and March.

Showalter has been known for quick turnarounds in the teams he's managed, bringing them from obscurity to relevancy in a few short years. He was named manager of the year with the Yankees in 1994 and then again 10 years later with the Rangers. He even has a similar, albeit more extensive, history as that of his GM Dan Duquette. Duquette's last big league job ended in 2002 after he had landed a couple of key building blocks for the Red Sox. Two years later they won their first World Series in 86 years. Buck did the same with the Yankees and Diamondbacks, teams that both won championships only one season removed from having Buck as their manager. In the case of Arizona Buck had a hand in building almost every aspect of the expansion franchise in its first few years of existence.

It is that control that has also been part of Buck's downfall with each team. His constant in-game strategizing and off field analysis is somewhat unusual in a sport that's still adjusting to a statistical renaissance that makes many of their old school scouting techniques obsolete. Many note that Buck is one of the few big league managers that can truly affect the day to day outcome of his team's games. Many also note that it's that exact kind of meddling that eventually turns players off of his methods.

Buck's history is very relevant when looking at the 2012 Orioles, who are now in their third season (second full season) under Showalter. He's been able to substantially affect the make-up of the team, and he seems comfortable with the players he has, commenting that, “if we [go to] camp with this [group] I'm more than happy with it.” This group has shown some brief moments of inspired play, but it's time to see if they can do it for a full year and end Baltimore's 14 year playoff drought. If they do Buck will be a hero. If not, he'll be just another manager who couldn't break through. In Buck's words it's time to you-know-what or get off the pot.

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