Orioles turn page, eager for fresh look

Baseball: Pitchers and catchers report today with the team seeking to forget last year's flat finish and start anew.

Spring Training 2003

February 13, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Frustration, disgust and disbelief. The Orioles were a collection of all those emotions the last time they were together on a ball field. The 4-32 stretch to end last season sapped their spirit and tested their resolve.

For inspiration this offseason, Orioles players could read from Jane Leavy's latest book, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. In it, Leavy describes Koufax's frustration at the end of the 1960 season.

He was so upset with himself, he threw his glove and spikes into a clubhouse trash bin, vowing to quit. But when Koufax arrived at Dodgertown the following spring, his equipment was polished and waiting for him in his locker.

"I thought you might want these," a clubhouse attendant told him. In 1961, Koufax led the National League in strikeouts and began a six-year stretch during which he would go 129-47.

Had the Orioles experienced the same impulse as Koufax last September, the trash bins at Camden Yards would have been overflowing. But now it's the time for new beginnings. Spring training is here. Pitchers and catchers report today.

Optimists have the floor. But realistically, after five straight losing seasons, what can the Orioles hope for right now?

Here's a list:

The elusive trade for help on offense

After refusing to spend what it took to land free agents Cliff Floyd, Ivan Rodriguez or Jose Cruz, the Orioles have yet to address an offense that scored 667 runs last season, second fewest in the American League.

They have stockpiled their starting pitchers, adding Omar Daal and Rick Helling, along with their already strong relief corps, adding Kerry Ligtenberg. Eventually, that should translate into a trade, especially with Sidney Ponson one year from free agency and the team showing no interest in signing him to a long-term deal.

They still love Kansas City Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran, but the Royals have insisted on acquiring both Rodrigo Lopez and Jorge Julio, who finished second and third, respectively, in last year's Rookie of the Year voting.

The Orioles can hope the Royals lower their demands, or they can try to lure Brian Giles away from the Pittsburgh Pirates. This team hasn't made a trade since dealing John Bale for Gary Matthews, last April, but spring is the time for hope.

"We're certainly going to try [to trade for offense]," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said.

Team starts strong; Hargrove's seat cools

Intentionally or not, the Orioles have left manager Mike Hargrove on the hot seat. He's in the final year of his contract, and the team is coming off one of the worst 36-game stretches in baseball history.

But after replacing vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift with Beattie and Mike Flanagan this offseason, the entire organization views this as a fresh start. Hargrove appears to have the new administration's full support, probably enough to survive a slow start like last year, when the team opened 4-11.

Still, the team can alleviate a lot of these concerns by starting strong and distancing itself from the end of last season.

"If I go out every day and worry about, `What am I going to do today to save my job?' then all I'm doing is helping the process become shorter," Hargrove said. "I've got to go out and be true to what I believe in and be true to this organization.

"If I do that and do my job correctly and do it well, then good things will happen. I really believe that. I want to stay here. I'm not ready to get out of the game by any stretch of the imagination. I love it here in Baltimore. I've got a great coaching staff, and I think we've got a great front office now. I know we've got a great owner. I've said that from Day One, and nothing's changed."

At the age of 36, Segui repeats 2000 production

The Orioles would be thrilled if David Segui can just stay healthy most of the season. In the first two years of his four-year, $28 million contract, he played 82 and 26 games. Last May, he underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left wrist and never returned.

By season's end, Segui still had trouble swinging from the right side, but the team is saying he'll be ready to switch-hit this spring. In 2000, the year before the Orioles signed him, Segui hit .334 with 103 RBIs for the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. If he's healthy, and can be anywhere near that good, this team's offense would be much improved.

Hairston duplicates last year's second half

Second baseman Jerry Hairston was one of the few Orioles who finished last season better than he started it.

He hit .234 before the All-Star break, as the team aborted its attempts to make him the leadoff hitter, but .291 after the break.

Hairston's .355 on-base average in the second half was tops among the Orioles' regulars and gave them renewed hope he can assume the leadoff duties. If he can accomplish that in his third full major-league season, it would provide a huge boost.

Batista, Gil and Mora rebound after slumping during the second half

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