Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
HAPs: Baltimore
2006-03-14 10:32
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Boy, there's really not much to get excited about in Baltimore. Unless you count the second coming of Jeff Conine. Miguel Tejada is cranky, Kris Benson is best known for his wife, and Brian Roberts is highly unlikely to repeat his career numbers from 2005. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are gone, but Corey Patterson and Javy Lopez appear eminently prepared to take over the underperforming malcontent roles. Ramon Hernandez and Kevin Millar are the big free-agent signings. I feel both guys are overrated from their experience as lesser regulars on recent playoff teams. The O's finished comfortably in fourth last season with a 74-88 record, and that was after a very hot start. They won't get that benefit in 2006. If Tampa Bay works intelligently to turn its current surplus of outfielders into average-ish rotation help, Baltimore will finish last in the AL East. They may do so even if the Devil Rays fail to get any deals done.

Was there anything Baltimore could have done this offseason to avoid a last-place fate? Not really. Trading Tejada for pennies on the dollar certainly wouldn't have helped. The acquisition of Benson is certainly defensible, as the righthander is at the very least durable and league-average starters simply aren't available on the cheap these days. If you ignore the fact that Lopez is exactly the kind of catcher who makes a big deal out of being "demoted" to DH, the addition of Hernandez improves their defense and perhaps their pitching as well. Leo Mazzone brings his trunk of snake charms, magical poultices, and evil eyes north from Atlanta, where he'll have his work cut out for him with the Erik Bedards, Daniel Cabreras, and Eric DuBoses of the world. If Mazzone can somehow coax a second consecutive good year out of Bruce Chen, he'll have sealed his case for the Hall of Fame in my mind. If he makes a bunch of rookies, sophomores, and LaTroy Hawkins into a real bullpen, he should be canonized.

Melvin Mora, Tejada, and Roberts give the Orioles a dynamite infield, but their outfield could be truly awful. Corey Patterson is still young and still shows tantalizing flashes of comprehension, but we all remember how well the last Baltimore rehabilitation of a Cubs outfield project went. Millar's power abandoned him last year and in his mid-thirties he doesn't look like the sort of player who will age at all gracefully. Jay Gibbons experienced a slight bump in his rate stats last year thanks to a jump in his number of at-bats against righthanders. The Orioles in their wisdom have rewarded him with a new contract and a promise of an everyday job. He still can't hit lefties, so we'll see how well that goes.

The O's are basically punting for 2006, and it's hard to blame them. The major moves of this offseason, or at least the ones in which can be detected some sort of rational line of reasoning, are built around making the best possible incubating environment for young pitchers possible. Sam Perlozzo was retained as manager partly because young players like him and mostly because of his connections with Mazzone. Hernandez was added to give all the young arms a trustworthy target behind the plate. The Benson trade serves to take the pressure off the Orioles' developing aces for a season or two, and to make it easier for Perlozzo to resist the temptation to overextend Bedard, Cabrera or (upon his arrival) Adam Loewen. That's all very well and good, but Baltimore needs a plan for building a competitive offense as well. None of their current core guys are at all young and obviously after this offseason Tejada is not the sort who's going to wait around like the good organizational soldier. On the farm they've got Nick Markakis and that's about it. At last season's deadline and then again during this offseason, it didn't look like the Orioles had much veteran talent to offer for trade, but markets change. If during this year some team somewhere gets desperate enough for a "proven" starter that Baltimore can flip Rodrigo Lopez or Benson for hitting prospects, they may be able to speed up the rebuilding process considerably. In the right light Mora or Javy Lopez might have value as well. In a sense the worst thing that could happen to the '06 O's is for them to hang around in the AL East race for the first half, because the last thing this team needs to keep doing is convincing themselves they're anything close to a contender. At this point they're farther away from the playoffs than Tampa Bay, but with their superior finances they needn't remain that way for very long.

The Orioles, like Detroit, have been bad at a very high cost for quite some time. They had a better offseason than the Tigers, however. The Millar and Conine signings are somewhat pointless but it's not as if either was for many years or many dollars. Ramon Hernandez's contract is a little more onerous but decent catchers are never easy to come by and Hernandez's impact on the development of the young pitching staff may indeed give him value over and above his lukewarm offensive numbers. Baltimore needs to deal frequently and vigorously to return to prominence in the American League, but the first step is always recognizing how much work you have left to do. It seems as if management has successfully identified the Orioles' decent first half in 2005 as the fluke that it was. That's a good start. The next step is making sure no one involved with the franchise is ever seen wearing one of those hideous solid orange jerseys ever again.

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