Nothing if not predictable in recent years, the Orioles carry more unresolved issues to spring training this week than at any time since at least 1995.
With 72 hours before camp officially opens Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for pitchers and catchers, the club can't project a starting rotation, a set outfield or even whether Albert Belle is ambulatory enough to play.
The organization also had yet to make public the new dimensions at Camden Yards, the makeup of the club's radio and television broadcast teams or the rights to its over-the-air broadcast package.
The Orioles are coming off a third consecutive fourth-place season, and one certainty is that the team is immersing itself in a rebuilding process that leaves it without a legitimate claim as a contender.
That isn't to say this year lacks suspense, especially in the next six weeks.
The last time the Orioles offered such potential for involving young talent, they made an unlikely run at the 1989 American League East title. The "Why Not?" Orioles may become a rallying cry for a team predicted to finish no better than fourth and possibly last for the first time since 1988.
The intrigue surrounding this spring has little to do with 1998, when 13 pending free agents walked into camp; or 1999, when second-year manager Ray Miller entered the season a lame duck and first-year general manager Frank Wren ended it as a dead one; or 2000, when Mike Mussina's pending free agency provided a false spring for negotiations.
Instead of hiring a new manager or general manager as they had done the previous three winters, the Orioles devoted this off-season to picking up the option year (2003) on manager Mike Hargrove's contract; signing Mark Wiley to a three-year, $900,000 contract unprecedented for any Orioles pitching coach, and going about the difficult task of creating a "transitional" team that may also compete in the major leagues' traditionally toughest division.
To a skeptical fan base and media, the Orioles have attempted to lay claim to longer-term thinking and organizational continuity. Majority owner Peter Angelos has even christened this "a youth movement," despite the presence of only one projected starter younger than 30.
On Wednesday, Hargrove and his staff will begin to formulate answers. Today, as the manager and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift arrive in South Florida, questions still rule.
What's the deal with Albert Belle?
Circle Feb. 20. It may be the most important date this spring.
It is the day position players undergo team physicals. A determination will then be made whether Belle's arthritic hip will allow him to play.
Should Belle pass the physical, the Orioles must then decide if he is mobile enough to remain in right field or would be better preserved as designated hitter.
Should Belle fail the physical, he would not be allowed to take the field. Nor would the club be liable for the $13 million owed him this season. If Belle agrees, his season could well be over and his career threatened. If he objects, he could file a grievance and demand another medical opinion.
This is the last season in which Belle enjoys blanket no-trade protection, but he has become a de facto Oriole for life. His chronic hip condition and massive contract leave him as a commodity only to his current team.
What went right this winter?
Thrift signed pitcher Pat Hentgen and re-signed shortstop Mike Bordick to fiscally responsible, two-year contracts after missing on free-agent pitcher Kevin Appier and shortstop Jose Valentin.
Hentgen won 15 games last season and Bordick is coming off a career offensive year. And neither player compromises the team's financial flexibility next winter.
The front-office decision to start all weekday games at 7:05 p.m. resounded with the public - and deadline writers - while the long-awaited decision to relocate the team's spring training site to West Palm Beach by 2003 represented another breakthrough.
Well, what went wrong this winter?
The Orioles failed to act on their No. 1 priority: improving one of the game's leakiest bullpens. Thrift and Angelos disagreed over the length of contract to offer surgically repaired free-agent closer Tom Gordon, who eventually accepted a two-year arrangement with the Chicago Cubs.
With their offers treated like "Confederate money," according to Thrift, they struck out in negotiations with free-agent middle reliever and Catonsville native Jeff Nelson, as well as Turk Wendell.
An attempt to sign Valentin as the shortstop of the present and third baseman of the future was trumped by the Chicago White Sox's less lucrative, shorter-term offer.
What does the bullpen look like?
Same old, same old. Though confident Ryan Kohlmeier is better served in a setup role, the Orioles return him as closer. Mike Trombley, Alan Mills, Jason Johnson, Mark Nussbeck and sleeper candidate Chad Paronto will vie for right-handed relief.