SARASOTA, Fla. — Stand in the middle of the Baltimore Orioles’ clubhouse and look around, and there aren’t a lot of familiar faces.
At the locker next the doorway leading from the clubhouse to the field is catcher Matt Wieters’ locker.
Sports Illustrated made the claim two springs ago that Wieters could wind up being one of the game’s all-time great catchers. He followed that hype by hitting 22 home runs and winning an American League Gold Glove last year in his second major league season.
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Wieters is the closest thing player-wise the Orioles have to be a face of the franchise, with all due respect to center fielder Adam Jones. Yet, it is safe to say that Wieters would go unnoticed almost anywhere in the country.
That not only illustrates the anonymity of the Orioles’ roster but just how important manager Buck Showalter is to the operation. Showalter is the one known commodity in an organization that even has a first-year general manager, Dan Duquette, who had been out of baseball of eight years since being fired by the Boston Red Sox as their GM following the 2003 season.
“I think we all realize how fortunate we are to have Buck as our manager,” Wieters said. “He’s one of the best managers in the game. You really respect what he brings to the table and his experience in the game.”
Showalter set the table for World Series teams in each of his first three managerial stops with the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. He also was a well-regarded broadcaster with ESPN between stints with the Diamondbacks and Rangers and again after he was fired in Texas.
Showalter also has faced some difficult challenges in his career. He took over as Yankees manager when they were going through one of the worst periods in their history and joined the Diamondbacsks when they were an expansion franchise.
However, trying to resurrect the Orioles might be Showalter’s most difficult task yet. The Orioles have had 14 consecutive losing seasons, six straight seasons of at least 92 losses and four last-place finishes in a row in the American League East.
Even the ray of hope Showalter brought when he took over as manager during the 2010 has dimmed. The Orioles went 34-23 to finish that season 66-96 but followed that by going 69-93 last year.
Considering the lack of talent on the roster, it is hard to imagine the Orioles finishing anywhere but last in the AL East again this season.
“We’re making progress,” Showalter insisted following a recent spring training workout. “It’s incremental progress, though. I know people want to see big leaps forward, but it doesn’t always work that way. We’re taking small steps toward getting better.”
Still, the Orioles, who had hoped to return to respectability on the supposed strength of their young pitching, seem light years away from contending in the toughest division in baseball.
Right-handers Jason Hammel, acquired from Colorado in an offseason trade, and Tommy Hunter, picked up from Texas at the trade deadline last July, are in the running to make the Opening Day start along with right-hander Jake Arrieta, one of a quartet the Orioles hoped to build around. Those three have won a combined 72 games in the major leagues.
Meanwhile, highly touted left-hander Brian Matusz and right-hander Chris Tillman have not progressed as quickly as the Orioles hoped and will likely begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk. So, too, might right-hander Zach Britton, who won 11 games as a rookie last season but faded down the stretch and was still nursing a sore shoulder when spring training began.
Showalter has the reputation of being a perfectionist who lacks patience. However, that mindset has had to change.
“When you’re building with young players, it’s going to take time,” Showalter said. “Everyone wants things to happen now.”
Expectations were high last season after the Orioles’ big finish to 2010 and the offseason free agent additions of designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero and first baseman Derrek Lee. However, the Orioles didn’t go the stop-gap route this offseason.
“Everyone was excited about what happened in 2010, and we ran with that and tried to win last year,” Showalter said. “I rolled with it. I understood the need to keep the fans excited, but you also saw what happened. We didn’t win and we’re not going to win with quick fixes. We have to build this the right way.”
Even if means a lot more losses for a manager who doesn’t like losing.
“It’s part of the job. It’s what I signed up for,” Showalter said. “It’s a great franchise, regardless of the recent history. To me, there’d be nothing better than be part of restoring the Orioles back to what the franchise used to be. It’s what attracted me to this job and it’s why I want to see if through, regardless of how long it might take.”