Better 2000: high hopes or flawed logic?

March 05, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- How can the Orioles expect improvement in 2000 with a lineup and starting rotation virtually unchanged from the club that went 78-84 last season?

Here's their thinking: If their bullpen improves and the rest of the club produces at the same level as 1999, they'll at least cross .500 and climb into more respectable territory.

It's a legitimate line of reasoning, given how critical the bullpen's first-half collapse was to what happened last season.

But it's also a line of reasoning the club was forced to adopt with so many key players' long-term contracts hindering major changes, and it's a line of reasoning based on several shaky premises.

One is that the reconstituted bullpen will, in fact, stabilize. We'll see about that.

Another is that the rest of the club will produce at the same level as last season.

Hold on there. A lot of things are going to have to go right for that to happen.

Amazingly, the Orioles lagged to a fourth-place finish in the American League East last season despite finishing in the top half of the league in hitting, and despite superb performances from numerous players, including a handful up in age.

Expecting a broad-based repeat of those performances is expecting a lot.

Cal Ripken hit a career-high .340 last season, for instance, looking better at the plate than at any point since his second AL MVP season in 1991. Can he do it again coming off surgery to repair a damaged disc in his back, with his 40th birthday just months away? It's asking a lot.

Then there's designated hitter Harold Baines, 17 months older than Ripken and coming off a similarly upbeat season in which he made the AL All-Star team and hit .312 with 25 homers and 103 RBIs. He's a seemingly ageless hitting machine, but can he maintain that high level of production at age 41? Again, it's asking a lot.

Come to think of it, all sorts of things along those lines went right for the Orioles in 1999, underscoring just how grievously the club underachieved.

B. J. Surhoff had a career year, carrying a far greater offensive load than ever before with 207 hits, 107 RBIs and 28 homers. He's looking like a late bloomer capable of keeping it up, but at age 35 (36 in August), who knows?

Mike Bordick, who turns 35 in July, also carried a far greater offensive load last season than the Orioles ever envisioned when they signed him, hitting .277 with 35 doubles and scoring 93 runs and driving in 77 as the No. 2 man in the batting order. Can Bordick, a career .258 hitter, keep doing that?

And can Brady Anderson, now 36, continue to deliver in as many ways as he did a year ago, when he hit .282 and 24 homers, stole 36 bases, scored 109 runs and drove in 81?

Add in Albert Belle's statistically typical season in 1999 (.297, 37 homers, 117 RBI) and there actually are few places in the order with room for much improvement. Only first baseman Will Clark, coming off an injury-filled season in which he totaled 29 RBIs, might be expected to contribute significantly more than last season.

Conversely, there are numerous places in the order in which a falloff from career-best performances wouldn't be a shock.

Of course, Ripken is indefatigable, Surhoff and Bordick are in terrific condition, Belle is relentless and Baines shows no sign of letting up, so an overall repeat is possible.

But the point is that a lot of good things were wasted in 1999, and the Orioles are asking a lot of they expect to experience them all again this season.

As for the starting pitchers carrying the same, relatively modest load as a year ago -- 61-57 with a 4.71 ERA -- Scott Erickson's elbow surgery and early-season layoff isn't going to help.

To reach 61 wins, the starting corps probably needs 20 wins from Mike Mussina for the first time in his career, at least a dozen wins from Erickson despite his injury and more from Sidney Ponson than the 12 wins he delivered last season.

There's more room for improved production in the rotation with Ponson and Jason Johnson just establishing themselves in the major leagues and possibly capable of bigger things, but at this point, with Erickson's status uncertain, 61 wins from the group would be a victory.

Basically, the Orioles finished sixth in the AL in hitting last season (with a .279 team average) and fourth in pitching (with a 4.77 ERA), and they're probably not going to fare a whole lot better this season, if at all. And they could fare worse.

In other words, the new bullpen absolutely has to come together and start protecting leads more effectively, and even then, a lot of things still have to go very right for the Orioles to make more noise with basically the same club that was so disappointing a year ago.

It's hardly a sure thing.

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