SARASOTA, FLA. — It's a loaded question, but that's OK, because the Orioles just added to what was already a loaded lineup.
So, is there a better offensive team in the American League than the one that led the majors in home runs last year and just added veteran slugger Nelson Cruz to that equation?
"I can't think of one,'' Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman said, "but I think every lineup in the American League is good. On paper, we look solid right now, but it's all about executing. It means nothing how good you are right now. We'll find out in October."
Give Tillman credit for answering that question in the most diplomatic way possible. He acknowledged what every Orioles fans wants to believe right now while tiptoeing around anything that would make the Orioles appear presumptuous.
Fair enough. They hit all those home runs and only finished in a tie for third place in the tough AL East, and everybody knows that it will be the quality of the pitching that most determines how far they go this year. But the arrival of Cruz has to put a charge into a batting order that too often was one big hit away from turning a tight game into an easy night for the bullpen.
Now, depending upon how manager Buck Showalter decides to assemble that lineup, it's conceivable that the Orioles will have Silver Slugger shortstop J.J. Hardy batting eighth. Yes, that J.J. Hardy, who has averaged 26 homers the past three seasons.
There were a couple better lineups last year, most notably the one that carried the Boston Red Sox to their third World Series title in 10 years, but every one of the top offensive teams in the league underwent some kind of dramatic personnel change.
The Red Sox lost center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees. The Yankees lost Alex Rodriguez to a year-long suspension. The Los Angeles Angels traded Mark Trumbo to bolster their pitching staff. The Detroit Tigers dealt superstar Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers, who lost Cruz to the Orioles.
Of course, all those teams made other moves to offset their offensive losses and shore up their lineups, so it really isn't clear who will open the season with the most run-production potential. But there was enough uncertainly created over the offseason to make a case that the Orioles are the team with the most net improvement.
"Boston is going to have a good lineup, and the Yankees are going to have a good lineup,'' said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez. "I think all the teams are going to be tough no matter what, but I think our lineup is going to be that much better with Cruz with us. He's just going to make us that much better."
Who better to ask than the guys who have to face those other lineups? Bud Norris has pitched in both leagues and he said this Orioles offense ranks with anyone.
"Obviously, across the league there are a lot of good lineups, but going into the season, I would have to say on paper this is one of the strongest if not the strongest as far as depth and so forth,'' he said. "We've got some veteran guys who have been around, and to bring in Nellie to really solidify the DH is really special. But we've still got to go out there and play them hard."
There still is that one big question, however. Did the club do enough to improve its on-base percentage? Cruz certainly brings another productive bat into play, but he's also another triple-figure strikeout guy.
Showalter acknowledged Wednesday that in the absence of an individual solution to last year's offensive continuity problem, he has made plate discipline a team-wide priority this spring.
"It's one of the points of emphasis,'' he said. "Instead of sitting here and addressing how we want that to improve, it falls under the Captain Obvious category. To the players, it's more important this time of year to say, 'How are we going to do that. How are we physically and mentally going to do that.' They've heard it, and we're attacking how we're going to do that.
"I think the example that your best players set is important with that, too, because that's kind of [contagious] too. I think the better your lineup is the more comfortable they'll feel about passing the baton."