AL East Preview: Orioles

A team that's recorded 10 straight losing seasons would seem to have nowhere to go but up. But there's still plenty of room below for the Baltimore Orioles, who might finally bottom out this year.

With the Rays finally starting to stir after their own decade of ineptitude, the Orioles enter this season as the obvious choice to finish last in the AL East and, perhaps, dead last among all big league teams. Indeed, the fact that this is the 20th anniversary of the Orioles' last 100-loss season—you may remember that as the year they lost their first 21 games—is appropriate since triple digits in losses appear likely for a club that shed its ace and cleanup hitter over the winter and will begin this season with few young building blocks and a whole lot of aging place-holders.

Still, the deals that sent Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada to the Mariners and Astros, respectively, are a sign that better days may be (far) ahead. A farm system that went into disrepair in the late ‘90s is beginning to bear some fruit—most notably in outfielder Nick Markakis, who should be the Orioles' token All-Star representative for years to come—and was further bolstered by the winter's big trades. The Orioles may get to further reload if they can dump second baseman Brian Roberts, who has been linked to the Cubs for months.

Despite a poor trade market and the overbearing presence of Peter Angelos—an owner whose penchant for meddling makes George Steinbrenner look passive in comparison—Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail managed to get quite a haul for Tejada and Bedard. The deal for Tejada—in which the Orioles received outfielder Luke Scott, infielder Mike Costanzo and pitcher Matt Albers, Dennis Sarfate and Troy Patton—was especially impressive given Tejada's rapidly declining numbers and the mounting evidence that his peak was chemically enhanced.

And talk about good timing: One day after the trade was completed, Tejada had a starring role in The Mitchell Report. Alas, his departure leaves shortstop to Luis Hernandez, who had 21 extra-base hits—and no homers—and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 55/18 in 397 minor league at-bats last year.

Bedard had no such baggage, but despite his emergence as a legitimate no. 1 starter over the last two years (a 3.47 ERA with 392 strikeouts in 378 1/3 innings), he's already 29 and has yet to throw 200 innings in a season. Yet in acquiring outfielder Adam Jones and pitchers George Sherrill, Tony Butler, Chris Tillman and Kam Mickolio from the Mariners, MacPhail got a far better return on Bedard than the Twins did from the Mets in exchange for Johan Santana.

Jones, a former first-round draft pick and a converted shortstop, should start in centerfielder for the Orioles on Opening Day and is just 22—two years younger than Markakis. He's raw but could develop into an All-Star. Sherill will be 31 in April, but he dominated lefties for the Mariners the last two years and is the favorite to serve as the Orioles' closer.

Alas, he's probably not going to get a whole lot of chances. Six of the Orioles' projected Opening Day starters are 29 or older and the rotation is headed by Jeremy Guthrie, who had a fine rookie season last year—at age 28. No. 2 starter Daniel Cabrera had a brutal 2007 low-lighted by his attempt to fight the Red Sox—every single one of ‘em—after he threw behind the head of Dustin Pedroia during a September game at Camden Yards. The rest of the rotation—Patton, Adam Loewen and Garrett Olson—has combined for 34 big league starts.

It'll be an ugly season at the prettiest ballpark in the land. But if the Orioles can unearth some keepers among the pitchers and younger position players—and continue to cultivate talents such as catcher Matt Wieters, the fifth overall pick in last year's draft, and 2005 first-rounder Brandon Snyder, who won the Hawaii Winter Baseball league batting title last fall—Camden Yards may again become a place to visit for more than just the ambiance.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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