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Friday, January 18, 2008

hope SPRINGS eternal

Pitchers and Catchers report next month. So now is the time of the year, that every baseball fan is supposed to be thinking about exactly what their team needs to do between now and Opening Day to make that push for the pennant. Because there is that saying in baseball, that everybody in baseball is a contender when they head north.

But if you're a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, you know that isn't really true. For the last ten years, you held out hope that maybe it was. In fact, some years you might have even believed it. But for those past ten seasons, the Orioles have never won more games then they've lost. In fact, over the period they've managed to lose better than a season's worth of games more than they've won. 173 more losses than victories in all. All along the fans, and I was one of them, thought that maybe this was the year that it all changed.

This season I'm not going along for the ride. In my opinion, another fourth place finish (the Orioles have finished fourth out of five in the AL East, nine of the last ten years) would be a major accomplishment. Last year's team was 69-93 and didn't exactly sprint to the finish line.

There has been little in the way of offseason manuevering, at least as far as additions are concerned. Gone is former MVP Miguel Tejeda. The Orioles sent him to Houston for a package of young players. Only Luke Scott can be counted on to make the roster out of spring training, and he hit just .255 with 18 homers in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park last year.

The rumblings persist that the Orioles will deal both their best starter Erik Bedard (13-5, 3.16 ERA) and their only all-star second baseman Brian Roberts before the season. Yet, the returns although they may be more plentiful then the haul brought in for Tejeda, aren't expected to bring any immediate superstars back to Baltimore.

With Bedard and Roberts, this team might have a chance to win 75 games. If Bedard anchors the starting rotation, the young staff could be mediocre, if the bullpen holds up. Jeremy Guthrie pitched well in his first real chance to hold down a slot in a major league rotation last season, but did show signs of why the Indians released him the winter before down the stretch. Potential star Adam Loewen made only six starts before an arm injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Daniel Cabrera continues to confuse up. He has great stuff, but doesn't get guys out. I'd prefer the opposite. But there is something to build on, and with Bedard as the ace, it could lead to 75 wins.

Still the Orioles are concerned about two things. That neither Bedard or Roberts will resign with the team when their contracts expire after the 2009 season and that there is a glaring lack of positional prospects at the top of the Minor League food chain. If you drew up a 2011 or 2012 projected lineup for the Birds, their prospects would likely match many of the teams around baseball. But the holes are glaring right now.

The lineup this year is expected to feature Aubrey Huff and Kevin Millar. Huff recently called the city of Baltimore a Horse**** town on a National Radio Show. Millar would rather be with a contender and should be hitting seventh every other day. For the Orioles he is the cleanup hitter. Every day.

Nick Markakis is a budding star and is the only real bright spot in the lineup. He followed up a succesful rookie season with a .300-23-112 sophomore campaign. How much he misses Tejeda behind him the lineup remains to be seen? But if his development continues he may replace Tejeda and Millar in the middle of the lineup.

Melvin Mora is an aging 36 at third base, and the Orioles would like to find at-bats for Scott Moore who they acquired near the end of last season. But Moore may not have the range to play third or the power to be a first baseman in the bigs.

As of right now, the Orioles have no centerfielder or shortstop to really count on. If Bedard is dealt, Adam Jones is expected to be part of the bounty. The Orioles would immediately plug him into the CF slot and be done with it.

Luis Hernandez, who is all glove and no stick, and Brandon Fahey, who is neither, will battle for the shortstop job.

10 years is a long team to lose. The fans are getting restless. Many won't show up at the best park in the majors this season. You really can't blame them.

I'm an Orioles fan, and I'll make the trip to the Yards a few times this summer. But I'll also go to see them at the minor league parks around the Area. Because the Orioles have made it clear, those are the guys who are going to make them a winner. So I'm going to get an early look and spare the frustration of expectation.



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