BALTIMORE — The Orioles will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards this season, taking fans on a journey back to when the team attracted sellout crowds every night and often made life miserable for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and the rest of the AL East.
Baltimore's charming ballpark hasn't changed much since Rick Sutcliffe launched the Orioles' 89-73 season by blanking Cleveland on April 6, 1992. Unfortunately, the state of the team — and attendance at Camden Yards — is in no way similar to the past.
The Orioles have suffered through 14 consecutive losing seasons and finished in last place in each of the last four years. Their backing at home has declined accordingly: Most of the sellouts in recent years have come when the Yankees or Red Sox are in town, and at least half the crowd at those games consists of fans backing the visitors.
Dan Duquette intends to change all that.
Hired in November as executive vice president of baseball operations, Duquette spent eight seasons in the Montreal Expos' front office before becoming general manager of the Red Sox from 1994-2001. No task he faced in baseball will be more difficult than the one he has undertaken as the replacement for Andy MacPhail, one of many on a long list of men who have tried and failed to win in Baltimore.
"I'm glad to be back," Duquette said. "This is a great ballpark. I can't believe it's been 20 years. We'd like nothing better than having a winning team. That's our goal."
For that to happen, the Orioles need to improve a pitching staff that had a major league-worst 4.89 ERA last season. After being out of the game for nine years, Duquette quickly identified Baltimore's most glaring deficiency and immediately set out to correct the problem.
He signed Wei-Yen Chen, the Orioles' first Taiwanese native, and Tsuyoshi Wada, who was 107-61 with a 3.13 ERA in Japan, to rectify a starting rotation that was decimated by injury in 2011. He took a chance by trading workhorse Jeremy Guthrie, the team's opening day starter in three of the last four years, to Colorado for right-hander Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom.
That leaves manager Buck Showalter with plenty of options to go along with veteran Tommy Hunter and up-and-coming Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen.
Sorting out the starting rotation has been a delightful exercise for Showalter, who often had to scramble to find a capable arm last season.
"Some of the things we hoped would happen are happening," Showalter said. "We hope that it's not kind of like last year, where it's the last man standing. That's the good part of it. There's a lot of good things going on. We're healthier. Guys are in a position to pitch better. We have the potential of definitely being a better pitching staff."
The depth in the rotation could improve the bullpen. Dana Eveland, Wada and Alfredo Simon are all able to start, but might end up pitching in relief before late-inning specialists Lindstrom, Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg.
As a whole, the staff appears more confident and capable than in 2011.
"So far, from I've seen what I've seen from our pitchers, they're throwing the ball with more conviction than they did last year," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "They're getting ahead of hitters, so I definitely feel better about it."
Power shouldn't be a problem for the Orioles. Mark Reynolds hit 37 home runs last year, and Hardy (30), Adam Jones (25) and Matt Wieters (22) each set career highs.
Duquette realized this, so he signed free agent Wilson Betemit (.343 on-base percentage in 2011) to help make those homers count for more than one run. The offense has the potential to be even better if the Orioles can get back second baseman and leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, who's still bothered by concussion-like symptoms after being limited to 39 games last year.
The defense up the middle, with Wieters behind the plate, Hardy at shortstop and Jones in center field, is solid. But Reynolds made a whopping 26 errors at third base, and although he played decently at first base in the latter part of the season, Showalter has opted to move him back to the hot corner and use Chris Davis at first.
Baltimore is also counting on Reynolds and Davis to cut down on their strikeouts. Reynolds whiffed 196 times and Davis fanned 63 times in 199 combined at-bats with Texas and the Orioles.
"If we can get some solid defense at the corners in Reynolds and Davis, and if those guys can make a little bit more consistent contact, we can be a competitive team," Duquette said.
Competitive would be an upgrade. The Orioles believe they can make it happen and, in the process, make the significance of the 2012 season about something more than the anniversary of Camden Yards.
"There's a lot of great fans out there that are ready for a winning season," Matusz said. "I almost get chills thinking about what we have in front of us — the opportunity. I think everybody's ready. It's going to be a special year."
No one is talking about making a run at the AL East title, but taking a step in that direction would be satisfying.
"I'm not saying we're going to do this or do that, but we're going to have a better year than last year," Jones said. "We've got a group of hungry guys, hungry pitchers who want to prove themselves, and we've got the manager who knows how to get the most of the guys. Let's go out there and put this team to a test. I'll put this team against anybody."