By Chris Ruddick, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (71-91) - Fourth Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Mike DeJean, C - Javy Lopez, 1B/DH - Rafael Palmeiro, SP - Sidney Ponson, SS - Miguel Tejada
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Tony Batista, SS - Deivi Cruz, C - Brook Fordyce, SP - Pat Hentgen, SP - Jason Johnson, RP - Kerry Ligtenberg
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jerry Hairston Jr. (2B), Melvin Mora (3B), Miguel Tejada (SS), Rafael Palmeiro (1B), Javy Lopez (C), Jay Gibbons (RF), David Segui (DH), Larry Bigbie (LF), Luis Matos (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Sidney Ponson (RHP), Kurt Ainsworth (RHP), Rodrigo Lopez (RHP), Eric DuBose (LHP), Omar Daal (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jorge Julio (RHP)
MANAGER: Lee Mazzilli
The Lee Mazzilli era is about to begin for the Baltimore Orioles. The former first base coach of the New York Yankees, known for his emotion and motivational skills, became the 15th manager in franchise history in early November after Mike Hargrove was fired following the team's 71-91 fourth-place finish in 2003.
Team officials felt that players were walking all over Hargrove. That is not likely to happen under the no-nonsense Mazzilli, who beat out O's Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in getting the job.
Mazzilli, who club vice president Mike Flanagan and executive VP Jim Beattie hope can bring some of that Yankee magic with him, excelled as manager of the Yankees Double-A team prior to joining the club at the big league level. However, Mazzilli will be embarking on his first managerial job at the major league level.
Flanagan and Beattie did not stop with the hiring of Maz though, as the team became heavily involved in the free agent market. Owner Peter Angelos has never been shy about spending, but the team has been handcuffed in recent years with bad contracts, such as the mammoth deal to the retired Albert Belle.
With Belle's and Scott Erickson's money now off the books, the O's jumped head first into the free agent pool by signing shortstop Miguel Tejada (six years, $72 million), catcher Javy Lopez (three years, $22.5 million), pitcher Sidney Ponson (three years, $22.5 million) and first baseman/DH Rafael Palmeiro (one year with an option)
Baltimore was also big players in the Vladimir Guerrero sweepstakes and also was close to signing Ivan Rodriguez.
Since Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001 the Orioles have desperately been searching for a high-profile player. In Tejada, the 2002 AL MVP, they get just that. The 27-year-old Dominican struggled at the start of last season, but came on at the end of the year and finished hitting .278 with 27 homers and 106 RBI. Tejada will also help in the field. where he is a significant upgrade over last year's big free agent acquisition, Deivi Cruz.
Joining Tejada in the infield will be another big offseason acquisition in Palmeiro, who belted 182 of his 528 career home runs in his first stint in Baltimore from 1994-1998. The 18-year veteran, who will turn 40 in September, still packs a lot of punch at the plate, despite his advancing age. Last year with the Texas Rangers, the Cuban-born Palmeiro hit 38 homers to go along with 112 RBI in 154 games, but saw his average dip to .260, the lowest it has been since his rookie year of 1986.
Palmeiro won't be in the field every day and will be spelled from time-to-time by the slick fielding David Segui, provided he can stay healthy.
At the other corner will be Melvin Mora, who takes over at third base this season for the departed Tony Batista. Mora, who enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season a year ago, will be manning the "Hot Corner" on a regular basis for the first time since Class A ball in 1994.
Mora, who can play just about every position in the field, batted .317 with 15 homers and 48 RBI in 96 games last season, but was limited to just 21 contests over the second half of the season due to various injuries.
Brian Roberts is expected to start the season playing second base because of an injury to Jerry Hairston Jr. Hairston is expected to be on the disabled list to start the season due to an injured right ring finger.
Hairston was the starter last season and became the prototypical leadoff hitter the team envisioned he could be before going down with a broken foot in May. Roberts then took advantage of the opportunity given to him, hitting .270 with 65 runs scored and led the team with 23 stolen bases.
The sure-handed Hairston, though, is expected to regain his spot as a starter once he returns from the DL. However, if his plate patience reverts to what it was before the start of last year, Roberts is more than able to fill the second base slot.
Lopez joins the O's behind the plate following a career offensive season a year ago in Atlanta that saw him hit .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBI. Last season Lopez set the major league single-season record for most homers by a catcher. A lifelong Brave, the 33-year-old Lopez will be a big upgrade, both from an offensive and a defensive standpoint over the inconsistent Brook Fordyce, who left via free agency.
Lopez, who can also play a bit of first base, as well as DH, will be spelled from time to time by Geronimo Gil.
The Orioles boast one of the league's best young outfields with Larry Bigbie in left, Luis Matos in center and Jay Gibbons in right.
Bigbie finally started to live up to some of the potential the team saw in him back in 1999 when they made him a No. 1 pick. The 26-year-old native of Indiana hit .323 in the second half of the season and finished the campaign batting .303 with nine homers and 31 RBI in 83 games. The hope here is that once Bigbie gains more confidence, he will eventually become a dependable No. 3 hitter. He is also an above-average outfielder with good speed and a strong arm.
Matos, 25, overcame injuries and excelled for Baltimore after getting called up in May. He ended the year hitting .303 with 13 homers and 45 RBI and was one of the team's top defensive players. He, like Bigbie, will develop more power as he matures.
Gibbons rounds out the outfield and has emerged as the cornerstone of this up- and-coming franchise. Last year the 27-year-old sacrificed his power numbers for a higher batting average. He shortened his swing and began driving the ball to the opposite field.
After a 28 HR and .247 average 2002, Gibbons belted 23 homers last season, but raised his average to .277 to go along with his 100 RBI, 31 more than the previous campaign.
Defensively, Gibbons is still a liability in the field and does not always take the best paths to fly balls. However, he does have a strong arm and is just two years removed from being converted from a first baseman.
Segui will likely start the season as the designated hitter, but this spot will likely be filled by a bevy of players including Palmeiro, Lopez, Marty Cordova and Jack Cust.
Segui, whose four-year, $28-million contract expires after this season, was limited to just 67 games last season because of injuries and hit .263 with five homers and 25 RBI. Since joining the O's prior to the 2001 campaign, the 37-year-old has not been able to escape the injury bug and has appeared in just 175 games out of a possible 486.
As rock-steady as the outfield may appear, the starting rotation for Baltimore is equally as unsteady.
One bright spot, though, is the return of righthander Sidney Ponson, who was signed as a free agent after being dealt to the San Francisco Giants at the trade deadline for a package of prospects that included starter Kurt Ainsworth.
Ponson, penciled in as the Opening Day starter, was 14-6 with a 3.77 earned run average in 21 starts before the trade, but struggled in the Bay Area, where he was just 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA.
Ainsworth, considered the jewel in the Ponson deal, spent most of last year on the disabled list with a fracture shoulder blade. However, the 6-foot-3 righty is the real deal and could emerge as the team's No. 2 starter. The 25-year-old hurler, pegged by some to compete for last year's NL Rookie of the Year award, was 5-4 with a 3.82 before the injury with the Giants last season. He came back with the O's in September, but did not earn a decision in three relief appearances with the team.
Joining Ponson and Ainsworth in the rotation will be the righthanded Rodrigo Lopez, who took a step back last year after finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2002. Following his 15-9 campaign two years ago, the 28- year-old Mexican hurler was plagued by injuries and bouts of inconsistency, and he ended with a disappointing 7-10 mark with a lofty 5.82 ERA.
Lefthander Eric DuBose slots in as the fourth starter. The 27-year-old former first round pick of the Oakland Athletics appeared in 17 games for the Orioles last season (10 starts) and was 3-6 with a 3.79 ERA.
Rounding out the rotation will likely be a free agent bust from a year ago - Omar Daal. The 32-year-old lefthander was a major disappointment last season and had 10 losses before the end of June. Relegated to bullpen duty by the end of the year, Daal finished the season 4-11 with a 6.34 ERA. He has shown up to camp though in phenomenal shape and is ready to put last year behind him.
Another lefty to watch out for will be former prospect Matt Riley, who overcame elbow surgery last season and pitched well in Triple-A. In two starts with at the big league level, the 24-year-old was impressive, using a crisp fastball and a wicked curve, and was 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA.
Lefthander Erik Bedard, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, may eventually move into the final spot in the rotation after a stint in the minors to start the year.
Jorge Julio returns as the team's closer after the righthander posted a career-high 36 saves a year ago. Loaded with potential, the 25-year-old struggled at times with command of his fastball and needs to trust his off- speed stuff more if he wants to take his game to the next level.
To ease some of the load from Julio's shoulders, the Orioles went out and signed right-handed veteran Mike DeJean to be a setup man. He had 19 saves last season in 76 games for the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals and is a more than able replacement should Julio sputter or get injured.
Hard-throwing Kerry Ligtenberg was also brought in to help from the right- handed side.
Lefty B.J. Ryan emerged as the team's top setup man last year and was 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA in 76 games. John Parrish and Buddy Groom will also chip in as left-handed specialists.
Baltimore's bench could be a strong point with veterans such as Cordova and possibly B.J. Surhoff, who is hoping to catch on with the team this spring. Cust has the potential to be a 30-home run guy and will provide some right- handed pop off in the late innings. Also, the loser of the second base battle, likely Roberts, will become a utility player and used as a pinch-runner in late-inning situations. The Orioles may also have veteran infielder Mark McLemore back in late April or May as he recovers from torn cartilage in his right knee.
The Baltimore Orioles made huge strides this offseason. Unfortunately they compete in the AL East, home of perhaps the two best teams in baseball in the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. However, the last couple of years Major League Baseball has provided fans World Champions from teams that many thought had little chance to succeed at the start of the year. If Baltimore's young pitchers come through, almost anything is possible with the Orioles, except an AL East title. However, this could prove to be their first winning season since 1997 when they won the division.