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February 12, 2013

MLB: Orioles spring into action with familiar roster

SARASOTA, Fla. — Same cast, different attitude.

The Baltimore Orioles won't waste much time with introductions Wednesday in Sarasota, Fla., before pitchers, catchers and selected veterans take the field for the team's first scheduled spring training workout. Although executive vice president Dan Duquette did some minor tinkering with the roster, the Orioles haven't changed much since last October.

Baltimore lost free agent first baseman Mark Reynolds to Cleveland, traded Robert Andino to Seattle, re-signed outfielder Nate McLouth and added infielders Alex Casilla, Danny Valencia and Travis Ishikawa.

"I think our fans understand that we have all of our core players returning from a very good ballclub,'' Duquette said. "The fact of the matter is that we had the best record of any major league team from Aug. 1 on.''

And that is why, despite the lack of action during the offseason, these aren't the same Orioles of a year ago. Last February, they reported to camp looking to end a run of 14 straight losing seasons and searching for a small measure of respectability.

Baltimore improved from 69-93 to 93-69 and earned its first postseason berth since 1997. The Orioles beat the defending AL champion Texas Rangers in the wild-card game, then lost to the New York Yankees in a five-game division series extended to the maximum.

There will be an air of confidence at camp as Baltimore prepares for what figures to be an even more competitive AL East.

"We've got a lot of the same guys back and the best thing I'm excited about is the chemistry we got going last year,'' All-Star catcher Matt Wieters said. "We feel like we can keep that going into 2013. We're using last year as a starting point. We want to keep improving off that. That sort of set the bar for us and, hopefully, everybody comes back ready to go, and we can improve on it.''

Nick Markakis is back from a broken left thumb that ended his season on Sept. 8.

"You can tell the change not only in the atmosphere of our team, but the atmosphere in the city and the community and the state itself,'' he said. "It's awesome. We're bringing back baseball not quite where it used to be, but we're on our way. We're getting close. It's going to be fun and it's going to be a fun ride.''

There won't be many questions to answer this spring. Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman are favorites to top the starting rotation, leaving manager Buck Showalter with only the one spot to fill from among Steve Johnson, Jake Arrietta, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton and Brian Matusz.

Chris Davis has been pegged to replace Reynolds at first base, although Ishikawa could receive playing time if Davis becomes a liability in the field.

There's also the matter of filling the leadoff spot. Markakis and McLouth both performed well last season in place of the injured Brian Roberts, whose health remains one of the Orioles' unknowns.

A two-time All-Star second baseman, Roberts has missed most of the past three seasons with injuries. After he returned from a concussion last year, Roberts played in only 17 games, had season-ending hip surgery in August and another operation for a sports hernia in December.

"I'm really looking forward to being on the field the first day, doing what everyone else is doing and being a normal guy again, hopefully,'' the 35-year-old Roberts said. "It's been a long journey to get to this point. I'm trying not to take it for granted, trying to enjoy the process and just praying for the best.''

Roberts spent his entire career waiting to be part of a playoff team, and when the Orioles finally made it to the postseason he could do nothing more than watch. His motivation this winter was to contribute to the cause.

"I've done more in January than I have my entire career. I have some things I want to get better at,'' he said. "I'm excited just to play. I never played for what people thought. I play because I love this game and I feel like I can still help out this organization. I feel like I can help win games. Only time will tell if that's true or not.''

Roberts and the rest of the Orioles were excited about getting started.

"I used to talk to the players about what the city could be and what it was like when we win,'' manager Showalter said last month. "For them to be able see it, they might actually think I know I what I was talking about. A lot of times this time of year, everybody is saying I wish I had another week off, another week off, but I'm not getting that from any of these guys. They're all, like, `Let's go.'''

 

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