Hope springs eternal

This is the day where hope spring eternal. Orioles pitchers and catchers report today in Sarasota. There is only one day all year we can say that and this is it. Welcome back, Orioles!

The start of spring training is always a day to dream big. Maybe this will be the year, fans say. For the first time in a long time, O's fans don't have to ask how many more wins the club will need over the year before. Another 93-win season would likely be good enough at least for contention all year and might even be enough to win a well-balanced and maybe wide-open American League East.

Fans should always dream big, today of all days.

So, as the crack of the bat returns, here are three things we can pretty much take to the bank and three concerns about the 2013 Orioles.

* The team has a strong nucleus

A lot of organizations could do worse than to build around a group that includes Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis and Manny Machado, just to name position players. It is a group that is mostly under team control for the next few years and also one where this entire list and others all fall in that age bracket of 25-30 and are either in or just reaching their prime years.

* The team has excellent leadership and clubhouse chemistry

I don't know of an Orioles team in the last dozen years or so that seemed to have a better clubhouse chemistry. It was a group of players that truly liked each other and put wining ahead of all else. They had a lot of, what Buck would call, "want to."

I remember Nate McLouth telling me how welcomed he felt in the clubhouse, one where he hardly knew anyone. And he didn't play his first game with the Orioles until August. Players exhibit characteristics of leadership in various ways and there are leaders almost everyone you look in that clubhouse. You can't put a stat on chemistry or character, but if you could, the Orioles would score high here. (Quick, someone invent WAR for chemistry.)

Oh, yeah, and there is always the leadership of Buck Showalter in the dugout.

* The team has solid defense that could be among the game's best

The great O's teams of the past were built on pitching and defense. From Aug. 1 on last year, the Orioles had the best record in baseball and they also had a rotation ERA of 3.85 (Oakland was third for the season at 3.80). After Machado's promotion on Aug. 9, the Orioles made just 19 errors, for a .990 fielding percentage. Both of those statistics were tops in the majors.

At six of eight positions in the field, the club will have players that have either won a Gold Glove or are capable of doing so. This defense could be very, very strong.

Now a look at some areas that could lead to problems:

* Will there be enough offense?

The Orioles ranked ninth in runs scored in the American League last season, scoring nine fewer than the league average. The club's inability to add a big bat has been one of the biggest topics of the offseason.

The Orioles seem to be banking on a few factors to help this offense. For one, full seasons from players like Machado, McLouth, Markakis, Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold. Roberts and Reimold are question marks for sure, but if the club does get full seasons or close to it from one or both it would be huge.

Also Hardy's stats were down last year from 2011 and, while Wieters drove in a career-high 83 runs, his batting average and OPS was down a bit from 2011. I think the O's offense will be at least league average with the potential for more.

* What if some players can't duplicate their 2012 seasons?

Miguel Gonzalez wasn't even signed this time last year and Chris Tillman never pitched as well for the club as he did last year. Jason Hammel reduced his ERA by over a run per game. Jones posted career highs in average, doubles, homers, slugging and OPS. Jim Johnson set a club record with 51 saves. Can Davis hit 33 homers again? McLouth, one of the club's best hitters late in the year, got released by the Pirates months earlier. Will Machado have a sophomore slump? If you are the worrying sort, this area could give you some material.

* The team can't possibly duplicate its success in the close games, can it?

No, no one expects a 29-9 one-run record or 16-2 extra-inning record again. The Orioles kept confounding the experts last year who kept pointing to their negative run differential as a reason the club would start losing. The Orioles never did and the record in the close games was a big reason.

But the Yankees went 22-25 in one-run games last season and posted 95 wins. Tampa went 21-27 and posted 90. Cleveland had the second best one-run record in the league in 2012, going 24-12. The Indians' record was 68-94. With another strong bullpen performance, the O's could be good again in the close games, but not 2012 good.

So what do you think?: Is your optimism for this season bursting today as pitchers and catchers report? In what areas is the club solid and what are your concerns at this point?


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