Andrew Stetka: Defending the AL East crown

"It's opening day!" and "Play ball!" are some of the most beautiful words in sports, especially for baseball fans. The day is finally upon us. All 30 teams, including the Orioles, have the hope of a new season where anything can happen. For the O's, this comes with something they haven't experienced since the Clinton presidency - trying to repeat as division champions.

If you remember, it's something they failed to do back in 1998. After winning 98 games and going wire-to-wire in 1997 to win the American League East, the Birds fell flat the next season and won just 79. The last time the Orioles actually won a division in back-to-back seasons, I wasn't even born. I wasn't even thought of. It was 1973 and 1974, or in other words, the start of the Nixon presidency.

It's a unique challenge for these Orioles. There are a lot of doubters, but also a lot of expectations for this group. The trend has ultimately shifted since the dull, 14-year losing streak that this franchise endured. The team is now expected to be good, and fans aren't just hopeful. They've made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and won the AL East going away last year. That means something. It comes with a target on their back. There are four other teams in the division that will be going after the same thing the Orioles want to keep all to themselves.

In 2012, the O's snuck up on everyone and popped into the wild card spot. Everyone called it luck, or destiny or something else in an attempt to discredit the accomplishment. In 2013, the team was still strong, but missed out on the postseason. Last year, the Orioles ran away with the division, even though expectations still weren't as high after missing out on the playoffs a year earlier. Now there is no sneaking up on anyone. Expectation is something I've written about many times over the last four years, and it's something that's only grown over this time frame. The biggest question mark that the team must answer is whether or not the growth of expectations will be met by continued and rising success on the field. If so, does that mean a step up from the American League Championship Series appearance last year and a World Series appearance in 2015?

Defending the AL East is obviously one key goal for the 2015 Orioles, but it won't stop there. When you look across the entire American League, at least according to most pundits, there isn't one sure-fire pick to win the pennant. It's a different story in the National League, where the Nationals seem to be everyone's choice. On the junior circuit, it's a much wider picture. The Mariners seem to be a favorite in the AL West, but the Angels and Athletics are also in the mix. The Central Division seems more wide open than any other in baseball. The Royals, who you'll remember represented the AL in the World Series last year, could very well finish fourth in their own division. The league is wide open. It's going to take contributions from many areas and breakout performances from others, but those who say the Orioles can't play deep into October again are kidding themselves.

You'll notice that there has been no mention here of a specific player or unit. I haven't pointed to the bullpen or starting rotation as needing to step up in a big way. I won't address the need for superior defense or to lead the league in home runs or improve upon on-base percentage. It's not that these things aren't important; they go without saying. There will be players on the opening day roster that won't be on the roster at the end of the season, or even halfway through it. The bottom line is that it's going to take a collective effort. There has to be a full unit of players, coaches and front office pulling on the rope in the same direction.

For the first time in a long while, I'm not hopeful the Orioles will be good. I'm not just wanting them to be competitive. I'm expecting them to win a lot of games. I'm anticipating the O's in the postseason once again. That's the difference between this year and many in the past. Starting today, we get to see if they pull their own weight. It starts with trying to defend the AL East.

Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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