PRESEASON PREVIEWS: Baltimore Orioles

Will Sammy stay all smiles?

The consensus was if the Baltimore Orioles to improve on their 78-84 record, and move closer than the 23 games out of first that that they finished in 2004, pitching was the key. While Sammy Sosa has always had a strong arm, eyebrows were raised when people realized the O's biggest offseason acquisition was the former Chicago Cubs...outfielder.

ADDITIONS:

RF Sammy Sosa (acquired in trade with Chicago Cubs), RHP Steve Reed (free agency), LHP Steve Kline (free agency), James Baldwin (free agency), Jay Witasick (free agency), INF Enrique Wilson (free agency), INF Chris Stynes (free agency), SS Chris Gomez (acquired in trade with Philadelphia Phillies), OF Midre Cummings (free agency)

LOSSES:

P Luke Haggerty (traded to Marlins), 2B/OF Jerry Hairston Jr. (traded to Chicago Cubs), LHP Omar Daal, LHP Buddy Groom, OF/DH/1B David Segui, OF Marty Cordova

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1: 2B Brian Roberts

2: 3B Melvin Mora

3: SS Miguel Tejada

4: DH Raphael Palmeiro

5: RF Sammy Sosa

6: C Javy Lopez

7: LF Larry Bigbie

8: 1B Jay Gibbons

9: CF Luis Matos

If chicks really do dig the long ball than expect the Ballpark at Camden Yards to be packed with females.  In this lineup the 2 through 7 spots should all hit 20+ homers, and with a full season's worth of at bats Jay Gibbons could join that club in the eight hole.  Will anybody be on base is the question of the moment.

Figure Roberts and Matos to compete for the leadoff spot, though until Matos figures out how to make more contact (he struck out 60 times in 330 at bats and posted a dismal .275 On Base Percentage) it is Roberts' job to lose.  None the less, there is an impressive amount of thunder in the middle of the order, made even more impressive by the balance of left and right handed hitters.  

Beyond who will hit leadoff for the O's, the biggest lineup question mark is if and where David Newhan will see time.  A versatile player, Newhan might slide into the role Mora played a few years ago, becoming Baltimore's super-sub and seeing time at second, third, left field, right field, and even potentially first base, as injuries and days off dictate.  If he continues to produce the way he did last season (.311/8/54 in 95 games after being acquired from the Texas Rangers organization) he could find himself a regular in the starting lineup by the end of May.  The most likely scenario has Matos struggling, Larry Bigbie moving into center field and Newhan claiming left as his own.

BENCH:

C Geronimo Gil

2B/3B/OF David Newhan

SS Chris Gomez

INF Enrique Wilson

OF/DH  BJ Surhoff

OF Midre Cummings

Outside of Newhan the bench doesn't scare anyone, but versatile former Yankee Wilson can play second, short, and third, giving the O's a solid veteran backup, and Cummings has great speed and a solid arm, giving the O's a late inning defensive replacement.  While Surhoff is aging, in limited duty his smart play, good contact, and clutch power should make him the first bat off the bench for late inning pinch hitting duty and a solid veteran backup for Sosa (who has missed time in each of the last two seasons because of injury) in right. 

ROTATION:

RHP  Sidney Ponson

RHP  Rodrigo Lopez

LHP  Erik Bedard

RHP  Daniel Cabrera

LHP  Bruce Chen

The enigma that is Sidney Ponson still leads the rotation, and Oriole fans have no choice but to continue to hope this is the year he finally figures it out.  He's been on the cusp of breaking out for so long he's now on the cusp of being a full fledged bust for the Orioles.  He is entering the second year of a three year, $22.5 million dollar deal with the Orioles, and may start the season late after allegedly punching a judge in the face this offseason in his native Aruba.  

After Ponson things get murky, and don't figure to clear up any time soon.  Rodrigo Lopez is currently slotted as the #2 and after an 11-7 season with a 3.95 ERA in 23 starts seems to be the only other lock to make the rotation besides Ponson.  

The rest of the cast will be determined by no less than seven candidates.  

Erik Bedard was less than overwhelming last year, going 6-10 and completely falling apart the second half of the season, going 3-8 in his last 11 decisions. 

Eric DuBose faltered after starting well, and then revealed he had bone chips in his pitching elbow, resulting in surgery.  Kurt Ainsworth joined DuBose on the operating table, and though Ainsworth is a former #1 pick he has to prove he can throw without his arm falling off before he can be placed in the starting rotation. 

Bruce Chen is on his ninth organization in seven Major League seasons, and was officially removed from 'Next Big Thing' status during the 2000 season.  He will make the club, and make appearances as a starter, but will likely spend the majority of the season in the bullpen.   

At 6'7" and just 23 years old Daniel Cabrera has a high ceiling, that he's no where near reaching, but the Orioles hope this season might be his breakout year and he might claim the #3 spot in the rotation by the end of the year.  To do that he will absolutely have to improve on his 89 walks in 147.2 innings.

Matt Riley is a talented left hander who averaged less than five innings per start.  At 26 years old this will be Riley's best shot yet to make a mark, and sources say his offseason workouts have been stellar.  Of all the young pitchers the Orioles will be working with, and there are many of them, Riley is the one most have tabbed as the potential breakout star in the Orioles rotation.

The two wild cards come with great arms and incredible potential.  John Maine was named the #6 prospect in the Orioles organization by Baseball America and has four legitimate pitches in his bag.  He was moved to Triple-A after just a handful of starts at Double-A last year and posted an under 3.00 ERA after a couple of rocky starts after the promotion.  Hayden Penn has yet to drink a beer legally, yet the combination of great control, a plus plus changeup, and pitching savvy well beyond his 20 years have led some to speculate that he might get his first big league start before he can celebrate with that beer.  He'll start the season in Double-A, but it could be a matter of weeks before his inserts himself in the rotation.

BULLPEN:

Closer: Jorge Julio/BJ Ryan

LH Set Up:  Steve Kline

RH Set Up:  Steve Reed

LH MR:   John Parrish

RH MR:  Todd Williams/Eddy Rodriguez/David Borkowski

For the Orioles the biggest conundrum is who will start, but almost as big is who will finish.  The nice thing for the Orioles is that unlike the starting rotation, where the O's are thin, the closer's spot is overstaffed.  Jorge Julio has been the closer in Baltimore the last two years, and while not being dominant, he's certainly serviceable, with a strong arm and closer's mentality.  None the less after a less than brilliant '04 the club gave Ryan a shot during the last two weeks, and he performed well.  The Orioles will reportedly wait until Spring Training to make a final decision, but Julio's name has been mentioned often in trade talks, most recently with the Chicago Cubs during the negotiations in the Sosa deal, and he could be moved at any moment, leaving the job for Ryan.

The Orioles did acquire pitching in the offseason, in the form of lefty set up specialist Steve Kline and righty veteran Steve Reed.  The two should form one of the better eighth inning duos in the league, and the bullpen wealth doesn't stop there.  Righty Todd Williams was fantastic last season going 2-0 with an under 3.00 ERA, and lefty John Parrish was equally impressive, striking out nearly eight hitters per nine innings during his 55 appearances.  Those two will handle the majority of the middle relief duties, with Eddy Rodriguez, David Borkowski, and at least one, possibly two, of the pitchers competing for a starting rotation spot filling out the rest of the bullpen, which should be a strength of the Orioles in 2005.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

It would be easy to say the starting rotation as a whole, but quietly the Orioles are saying Ponson is their real concern.  He is reportedly trimmer than he has reported to Spring Training in the past, and has been working on a changeup to help combat left handed hitters.  If Ponson can throw 200+ innings and keep his ERA in the general neighborhood of 4.00 the improved offense should get him 15 wins, and give the Orioles at least one veteran pitcher they are comfortable throwing in big games against the Red Sox and Yankees. 

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Cabrera and Riley are on equal footing here.  Cabrera is raw but has startling tools, and Riley could develop into a true front of the line lefty starter.  If either develops into the kind of starter the Orioles believe they could be, this team could jump from competing for fourth in the AL East to becoming a spoiler that very well might knock either the Red Sox or the Yankees out of the Wild Card.

PROJECTION:

The Orioles were supposed to go out and get one or maybe even two starters at the free agent table.  Carl Pavano passed, Derek Lowe went to the Dodgers, and everyone else ran for the hills.  The Orioles have quite a few promising arms in the system, but it seems unlikely that they will be ready for the big leagues, not to mention ready to go into the Bronx, or Fenway, and keep the Orioles in a game.  The offense should be potent, and the Orioles should play a lot of 11-8 games, problem is, they seem likely to lose more of those than they will win.  Expect a fourth place finish, with the potential to move up to third if Cabrera and/or Riley comes on strong.

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