In the middle of their 12th consecutive losing season, help arrived for the Baltimore Orioles last summer in the form of new manager Buck Showalter.
Showalter immediately made the Orioles more accountable and, stressing fundamentals, engineered a sharp turnaround in the team's play. Over the final two months, the Orioles were a surprising 34-23.
The trick will be to sustain that kind of improvement over the course of a full season, and, of course, do it in what is arguably baseball's most competitive division.
Three things that have to go right:
1) The young starters must continue to grow.
Lefty Brian Matusz struggled, but over the final two months went 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA. This year, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman must make similar strides. If the Orioles are ever going to get out of the East cellar, it will be because of homegrown starting piching.
2) Brian Roberts must stay healthy and contribute at the top of the batting order.
Roberts was limited to just 59 games, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the infield and top of the lineup. Roberts is a veteran who can set the tone, but he has to be on the field to do it.
3) Newcomers Mark Reynolds and Derrek Lee must bounce back from off seasons.
Reynolds hit just .198 in Arizona while amassing startling strikeout numbers and Lee was limited by a variety of injuries. These veterans need to contribute at the corners for the O's to be anywhere near break-even.
Three things that can't go wrong:
1) Jeremy Guthrie can't fall short as a workhorse.
The rest of the rotation is young and inexperienced and needs Guthrie to lead the way. He's averaged just under 200 innings over the last three years and must continue to carry the load while the youngsters develop.
2) Adam Jones and Matt Weiters can't have the kind of fall-back seasons they did a year ago.
Together, the two represent the nucleus of the O's rebuilding effort, up the middle of the diamond. Jones seemed indifferent until Showalter arrived and Weiters developed far slower than anticipated. It's time for them to make good on their considerable promise.
3) J.J. Hardy can't be as inept as Cesar Izturis, the man he's replacing.
Izturis had the lowest OPS (.545) of any major league regular. Hardy doesn't have to be the second coming of Cal Ripken Jr. at short, but he does need to provide a little offense at shortstop.