Showalter confident his Orioles will contend

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter holds a bat

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter holds a bat during a spring training workout in Sarasota, Fla. (Feb. 13, 2013) (Credit: AP)

SARASOTA, Fla.

The conversation with Buck Showalter begins with the Yankees and Red Sox, because that's where it always starts when talking about the American League East.

And just when Showalter has convinced you that his focus is on the Orioles -- not anybody else in the division -- the short walk from the practice fields of Ed Smith Stadium ends up in the conference room adjacent to the manager's office.

Showalter sits, and then gestures toward the wall.

Taking up most of the space are four giant dry-erase boards, with a position-by-position diagram in the middle of each accompanied by complete depth charts for the AL East teams. Starting lineups, rotation, bullpen, bench.

At the top, next to the club's name, is the projected 2013 payroll.

Only the Rays, at $55 million, are below Showalter's Orioles, who are expected to open with a payroll at roughly $87 million. The other three are well above $100 million, and by this estimation, the Yankees are at $217 million.

Showalter likes to know what he's dealing with. He wants his staff to know, too. So it's in their face, all the time, for every meeting in this room.

"Our idea is to be better than those four teams right there," Showalter said. "What else are we supposed to be looking at? I want our guys to know what those teams did or didn't do during the offseason and what we have to attack."

There's also a dry-erase board for the Orioles, a larger one off to the side, and that includes a few names that may not be new but still feel like additions after incomplete seasons. Outfielder Nolan Reimold played only 16 games (five HRs, 10 RBIs) before surgery for a herniated disc. Second baseman Brian Roberts logged 17 games, then needed a hip operation. Nick Markakis (.298 BA, 13 HRs) had his season ended on Sept. 8 when a CC Sabathia pitch broke his left thumb.

Even Manny Machado was only a top prospect a year ago at this time. Now, after an impressive 55-game debut, he's back at third base from Opening Day. GM Dan Duquette says he's comfortable with the team's fine-tuning during the winter, despite the fact that his most costly free-agent signing was Nate McLouth to a one-year, $2-million deal.

Duquette could argue that this same nucleus did a pretty good job last season in winning 93 games and beating the mighty Rangers in the wild-card playoff before falling one victory short of knocking off the Yankees in the ALDS. Some would say that's like counting on lightning to strike twice. The Orioles don't look at it that way.

"The big thing is we loved our team last year," catcher Matt Wieters said. "There's nothing with our team that we thought needed to be different in order for us to win the World Series. We loved the chemistry we had. We loved the way everybody played together. Just seeing what kind of fight everybody had. It speaks a lot for everybody's character."

There's plenty of evidence for Wieters to draw from. The Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games last season and 16-2 in extra innings. A big part of that formula was a stingy bullpen featuring sidearming righty Darren O'Day, set-up man Pedro Strop and closer Jim Johnson, who converted 51 of his 54 save chances.

The bottom line is that the Orioles showed they were done being a pushover for the rest of the AL East. The last time they won as many as 70 games was 2006. Baltimore hadn't reached 80 since going 98-64 in 1997. The Orioles believe they've achieved some degree of respectability again -- even if people outside the clubhouse haven't totally bought into it.

"We can play with anybody," centerfielder Adam Jones said. "Not just in this division. We can play with anybody in the world."

Showalter doesn't have enough dry-erase boards to break down the entire planet -- or at least has yet to mount those in the conference room. But he's right about one thing: The Orioles will have their hands full with the AL East, which should be stronger this year with the powerfully remodeled Blue Jays and a less dysfunctional Red Sox club.

You get the sense Showalter's Orioles will be prepared for it.

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