By Tony Moss, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (78-84) - Third Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: INF - Chris Gomez, RP - Steve Kline, RP - Steve Reed, OF - Sammy Sosa, INF - Enrique Wilson
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 1B/DH - David Segui, 2B/OF - Jerry Hairston, C - Robert Machado, RP - Buddy Groom
PROJECTED LINEUP: Brian Roberts (2B), Luis Matos (CF), Melvin Mora (3B), Miguel Tejada (SS), Sammy Sosa (RF), Rafael Palmeiro (DH), Jay Gibbons (1B), Javy Lopez (C), Larry Bigbie (LF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Sidney Ponson (RHP), Daniel Cabrera (RHP), Rodrigo Lopez (RHP), Erik Bedard (LHP), Eric DuBose (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: B.J. Ryan (LHP)
MANAGER: Lee Mazzilli
When your team plays in a division with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, hope is certainly at a premium. Yet the Baltimore Orioles enter 2005 with a glimmer of optimism that they might compete in the rugged AL East for the first time this millennium.
In '04, the Orioles' freed themselves from the fourth place shackles that had bound them for six straight seasons, and the club's 78 wins were their most since scoring that many in 1999. A team that took its time in warming to first-year manager Lee Mazzilli eventually found an identity, going 21-13 after Aug. 29 and taking the season series from the eventual world champion Red Sox, 10-9. Baltimore hit .281 on the season, third best in the AL, and after a shaky start found some consistency with starting rotation linchpins Rodrigo Lopez (14-9, 3.59), Sidney Ponson (11-15, 5.30), and young Daniel Cabrera (12-8, 5.00).
It was believed that the Orioles would parlay their late-season success into some major movement on the free agent market, but the team never quite got moving in that regard. The O's whiffed in their search for a bona fide No. 1 starter, making ultimately fruitless pitches for Tim Hudson, Carl Pavano, and Javier Vazquez, among others. The big power bat the Birds were seeking also nearly eluded them, and though the team ended up netting the declining Sammy Sosa in a trade with the Cubs, it was only after failing to lure a more attractive slugger like Carlos Delgado or Richie Sexson to Charm City. An aversion to the granting of multi-year contracts, an attitude that arose out of past bad deals for Albert Belle, Scott Erickson, and David Segui, likely hamstrung the franchise during negotiations.
Baltimore is left to enter 2005 with the hope that Sosa can rebound from a disappointing 2004 and make a positive contribution to a lineup that held its own last season, while crossing its fingers that a lightly-regarded rotation defies most pundits' expectations and comes together early. If it doesn't, and the team fails to show significant improvement, sometimes-impatient owner Peter Angelos could see fit to strip Mazzilli of his duties.
One of the Orioles' top offseason priorities was to find an everyday first baseman with some power, but with Sexson and Delgado choosing to go elsewhere, Baltimore opted to re-sign 40-year-old Rafael Palmeiro (.258, 23 HR, 88 RBI). With Palmeiro expected to serve mainly as DH, and with Sosa the obvious choice to play right field, former right fielder Jay Gibbons (.246, 10 HR, 47 RBI) will be shifted to first if he is able to stay healthy. The 28-year-old Gibbons has been plagued by wrist and hip injuries during his four-year MLB career, and has already missed time in spring training due to a bout with pneumonia.
Though Javy Lopez (.316, 23 HR, 86 RBI) remains the everyday catcher, the former Brave has requested to play fewer games behind the plate in the interest of extending his career. Lopez is likely to see some time at both first base and DH in 2004, and former O's starter Geronimo Gil looks to have a leg up on backup catcher duties. Gil spent most of last season at Triple-A Ottawa.
Though first base is the position that received the most attention in the offseason, the heart of the infield, and the team in general, is shortstop Miguel Tejada (.311, 34 HR, 150 RBI). Tejada did not disappoint in his first year as an Oriole, playing in all 162 games, winning the home run contest during All-Star weekend, and leading the majors in RBI. Tejada carried Baltimore at times on offense, and will be a fixture in the No. 4 hole for the Birds. Of some concern to the O's were the 24 errors committed by Tejada, his most since 1998.
For the first time in his career, second baseman Brian Roberts (.273, 4 HR, 73 RBI) is the unquestioned starter at second base and lead-off man for the Orioles. Roberts' seemingly ongoing battle with Jerry Hairston for those duties came to an end when Hairston was dealt to the Cubs in late January, in exchange for Sosa. Roberts led the American League with 50 doubles in 2004, and finished fourth in the AL with 29 stolen bases. He was bothered by a strained right shoulder during spring training, but is expected to be ready for opening day.
Rounding out the infield is third baseman Melvin Mora (.340, 27 HR, 103 RBI), who had a career year at the plate and did a serviceable job in his first full season at the hot corner as well. Mora's offensive prowess has rendered a change from the second to the third spot in the order, and the former Met should continue to see plenty of strikes while hitting in front of Tejada.
Vying for utility infield duties during spring training were Chris Gomez (.282, 3 HR, 37 RBI with the Blue Jays) and Enrique Wilson (.212, 6 HR, 31 RBI with the Yankees), both of whom have ample major league experience. Mazzilli could keep both players on the bench, but one will probably fall victim to a numbers crunch.
All eyes will be on Sosa (.253, 35 HR, 80 RBI), who will be seeking to rejuvenate his career after a troubling 2004 in Chicago, both on and off the field. The slugger's home run and RBI numbers were his lowest since the strike-shortened 1994 season, and his run-ins with manager Dusty Baker were seen as having a negative impact on the club. In Baltimore, Sosa will play his familiar right field role, and will likely be plugged into the No. 5 spot in the order.
In left will be Larry Bigbie (.280, 15 HR, 68 RBI), who was reliable in his first full season of everyday duty last year. Bigbie, who also spent some time in center, displayed strong outfield skills and occasional pop, though his team-high 113 strikeouts raised some concerns.
The Orioles are banking on the ability of Luis Matos (.224, 6 HR, 28 RBI), who missed significant time in 2004 due to a broken right shin, to return to his previous form in center. Matos surprised the team by hitting .303 with 13 home runs in '03, but never re-captured the magic in last year's abbreviated campaign. Matos, who has 27 steals over the past two seasons, will likely move up to No. 2 in the order if healthy.
Contingencies for the oft-injured Matos in center include Bigbie as well as the versatile David Newhan (.311, 8 HR, 54 RBI), who was impressive while playing five different positions for Baltimore in '04. The club will also try to find at bats for veteran B.J. Surhoff (.309, 8 HR, 50 RBI), who turned 40 last season, but has life left in his bat.
Palmeiro will be Mazzilli's top pick to fill the DH role, but the 40-year-old will have to improve upon last year's .258 average in order to stay in the lineup. Newhan and Surhoff, both of whom hit over .300 last season, could be ready to swoop in if Palmeiro falters.
The biggest name, not to mention the biggest body, within the Oriole rotation is Sidney Ponson (11-15, 5.30 ERA). Ponson was positively dreadful in the first half of 2004, starting the season 3-12 before turning things around in the latter half of the year. Ponson looked to have turned the corner in 2003, when he won 17 games for the Orioles and Giants, but last year seemed to lack the maturity and discipline to qualify as a staff ace. Questions about his character cropped up again in January, when Ponson was jailed for eight days in his native Aruba following a physical altercation with a judge. It appears that Mazzilli will drop Ponson in the rotation in order to take pressure off the 28-year-old while boosting his confidence.
With Ponson seemingly out of the picture to be a No. 1, the spotlight will again shine on Rodrigo Lopez (14-9, 3.59 ERA). Lopez was brilliant out of the bullpen in the early part of last season, and was nearly as reliable after winning his starting job back late in the spring. But the last time the O's counted on Lopez in this substantial a role, following his 15-9 campaign of 2002, Lopez stumbled to a 7-10 record complete with a 5.82 ERA the next season. If history repeats itself, Baltimore will be in big trouble at the top of the rotation.
The most pleasant surprise in the Oriole rotation during '04 was Daniel Cabrera (12-8, 5.00 ERA), a hard-throwing 23-year-old who carried Baltimore's starters before hitting the wall somewhat late in his rookie season. The 6-7, 230-pound Cabrera has sewn up his place in the rotation as 2005 begins.
Four lefthanders - Erik Bedard (6-10, 4.59 ERA), Eric DuBose (4-6, 6.39 ERA), Matt Riley (3-4, 5.62 ERA), and Bruce Chen (2-1, 3.02 ERA) - are in the running for the final two spots in the rotation. Bedard, who started 26 games and tied for the rotation lead with 121 strikeouts last year, would seem to have a beat on at least one of those jobs. The team was hopeful that Riley could live up to his substantial promise and take the No. 5 role, but DuBose and Chen both out-pitched him as spring training neared completion.
Lefthander B.J. Ryan's status as one of the top relievers in the game appears to have earned him a promotion, as the Orioles look ready to move him from set-up to the closer's role. Ryan (4-6, 2.28 ERA, 3 saves) has appeared in 76 games in each of the past two seasons, and last year led the team in strikeouts (122) despite pitching fewer innings than four of the club's starters.
Ryan's potential move is necessitated as much by his own strong play as by the disappointing recent work of Jorge Julio (2-5, 4.57 ERA, 22 saves). Julio struck out 70 in 69 innings last year, but established career highs in both ERA and walks (39). Julio, who missed the bulk of spring training with a strained right forearm, will be Mazzilli's top choice for right-handed setup duties.
In order to earn that job, Julio will have to beat out side-winding veteran Steve Reed (3-8, 3.68 ERA), who came over from the Rockies in the offseason. Reed has the lowest ERA in Coors Field history. With Jason Grimsley (5-7, 3.86 ERA) expected to miss most of the season following Tommy John surgery, former Padre right-hander Jay Witasick (0-1, 3.21 ERA) could be in the mix in short relief as well.
Taking over Ryan's left-handed setup role will likely be former Cardinal Steve Kline (2-2, 1.79 ERA), who had the best ERA of his career last season, but also pitched a personal-low 50 innings.
Candidates for long relief include the odd men out in the battle between Bedard, DuBose, Riley, and Chen for the final two rotation slots, as well as trusty bullpen staples John Parrish (6-3, 3.46 ERA), Rick Bauer (2-1, 4.70), and Todd Williams (2-0, 2.87 ERA).
As mentioned, the Orioles have several bench options with Newhan, Surhoff, Gomez, Wilson, and Gil all in the mix for reserve roles. In order for Gomez and Wilson to both make the team as utility infielders, or if the Orioles wish to carry a third catcher, the team would have to be willing to come north with one fewer pitcher.
The lineup is good, the bullpen is high-quality, and the rotation has some promising young arms. That might sound like a playoff formula in most divisions, but this is the AL East, where the margin for error in the quest to compete with the deep-pocketed Red Sox and Yankees is incredibly small. The Orioles made some headlines by adding Sosa's bat to their lineup, and the acquisitions of both Reed and Kline will aide the bullpen. But the team still has glaring weaknesses in the rotation, and the absence of a front-line starter or two figures to be its undoing when all is said and done. Baltimore endured three losing streaks of seven games or more last season, including a 12-gamer in August that sank the team's already fleeting postseason hopes. Without those three skids, the Orioles were 78-58 (.574). The best remedy for long losing streaks is the presence of a true No. 1 starter to stop the bleeding, and the O's again lack such a workhorse. Third place looks to be in Baltimore's future once again.