Spring training: The words symbolize the beginning of yearly renewal and bring hope to baseball fans in cities across the country. But then again, these are the Orioles.
We have been entertained by decent starts to the past two seasons—39-43 in 2001 and 63-63 in 2002—before monumental collapses left the O's with 98 and 95 losses, respectively. This year's team is essentially the same, plus the questionable signings of veteran free agents, and the Orioles' strengths will be pitching and defense.
In other words, their weakness is offense. The Orioles have yet to sign or develop a true impact power hitter, and in the age of the long ball, only Tony Batista, Jay Gibbons and maybe Marty Cordova could hit a 20.
The biggest question is if Jerry Hairston is a legitimate major league hitter. He will likely start the season hitting leadoff—not a good place to find out. With a faster and more defensively sound Brian Roberts behind him, Hairston needs to abandon any idea he has of being a power hitter and start hitting line drives to all fields if he wants to keep his job.
The O's don't gain much offensively at shortstop with the acquisition of journeyman Deivi Cruz, a lifetime .270 hitter with no power. They lose a great deal defensively without Mike Bordick, who committed only one error in 2002. If Cruz doesn't produce and the Orioles aren't in contention (hopefully this won't be a sure bet until September), 24-year-old prospect Ed Rogers may get a shot to play.
The corners look pretty solid because third baseman Batista should lead the team in home runs and RBIs and because whoever is at first (Jeff Conine, David Segui or Chris Richard) will hit for a high average and some power. Behind the plate, Geronimo Gil has the best arm in the American League now that Ivan Rodriguez was traded to Florida, but Gil sometimes has problems blocking balls and has not yet proven he can hit.
The outfield will be mediocre at best. Marty Cordova and Jay Gibbons can't cover much ground out there, and both would be better suited as the DH, but the Orioles need their bats in the lineup. Centerfielder Gary Matthews blossomed last season, hitting over .300 for much of the year, but still would be a reserve on most teams.
Despite one of the worst lineups in the American League, pitching will give the O's a chance in 2003. The bullpen looks to be tops in the AL East, with the starting rotation having at least the potential to be not far behind.
If the O's can hold a lead into the ninth inning, Jorge Julio, who converted 25 of 31 save opportunities last year, should shut the door.
Willis Roberts and new acquisition Kerry Ligtenberg are both proven right-handed setup guys—Roberts with a 3.36 ERA in 66 games last year, Ligtenberg with a 2.97 ERA in 52 games with the Braves in the 2002 campaign. In addition, lefties B.J Ryan and Buddy Groom, the first pitcher in major league history to appear in 70 games in seven straight seasons, should balance out a successful bullpen.
As for the starters, it can't hurt for Orioles fans to cross their fingers. Ace Rodrigo Lopez had a terrific 2002 season and could be for real, but he is young and unproven. Sidney Ponson and Omar Daal should be penciled into the rotation as well. Ponson, a seemingly perpetual prospect that has always been decent but never that good, showed signs of excellence last year that brought his record to 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA. He needs to stop trying to be a power pitcher if he wants to improve to the level the Orioles need.
In a staff filled with question marks, Daal, a 16-game winner in 1999 and the Orioles' best off-season pickup, will steady the rotation with his veteran presence and give the Orioles balance as their only left-handed starter.
The fourth and fifth spots are up in the air and will likely go to 6'7" Jason Johnson and over-the-hill Pat Hentgen. But if the Orioles know what is good for them, they will give the much younger Rick Bauer a chance.
In the weak AL East, the Birds could conceivably end up in third or even second place if their pitching holds together. They'll go 83-79, give or take three games. But to get into the playoffs, this team needs a spark—a big-name free agent, a top prospect or at least a 13-year-old fan with long arms, a good glove and front-row seats in the right-field bleachers.
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