Looking for answers

Orioles: Spring training will provide early clues to the team's five most pressing questions heading into the season.

Spring Training 2004

February 20, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli is about to rediscover the reason spring training has become a six-week marathon for major league teams.

Coaching for the New York Yankees the past four seasons, Mazzilli could have been forgiven for thinking the entire exercise took too long. The Yankees have been such a well-oiled machine, their brain trust didn't exactly have to fret over the uncertainties each spring.

Mazzilli enters his first camp as Orioles manager today, when pitchers and catchers report, with about as many questions as the Yankees faced in the previous four springs combined.

Here are five of the biggest questions the Orioles face:

Who's poised for a breakout season?

Scouts were raving about Larry Bigbie at the end of last season, saying he was having some of the best at-bats of any hitter in the Orioles lineup. After July 31, Bigbie hit .328 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.

Former manager Mike Hargrove moved Bigbie to the third spot in the batting order for most of September, and despite the brutally difficult schedule the Orioles were facing, Bigbie responded by hitting .326 with a .376 on-base percentage.

Bigbie should get even better pitches to hit this season, now that the Orioles have added Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro to their lineup.

Which starting pitchers will grab rotation spots?

After signing Sidney Ponson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract, the Orioles clearly expect him to be the ace, and he'll likely get the nod on Opening Night, April 4, opposite Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards.

As for Game 2, it's wide-open. For projection purposes, the rest of the starting rotation could look like this: Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez and Matt Riley. But there are no guarantees for any of those four.

If someone falters, Omar Daal, Denny Bautista, John Maine and Rick Bauer are also candidates to make the rotation. This will be an ongoing saga that could change with each exhibition game.

Who gets traded, Jerry Hairston or Brian Roberts?

When the Yankees traded Alfonso Soriano to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez, it left a big hole at second base, and Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said his club would entertain the Yankees' best offers for Hairston or Roberts.

That showed how committed the Orioles are to getting good value in return for one of these players. They're not afraid to make a trade, even if it adds the one final missing piece to a hated division rival.

This same issue was there last spring, but, at the time, it was tough for the Orioles to sell other teams on Roberts because he had yet to prove he could hold down an everyday job in the big leagues. When Hairston got hurt in May, Roberts answered all doubts, batting .270 with 23 stolen bases and a .337 on-base percentage.

Hoping to maintain some leverage in trade talks, the Orioles have insisted they don't have to make a move. Roberts, who still has a minor league option remaining, could be used in a utility role, and he's good insurance in case Hairston's foot injury flares up again.

But this hardly seems like the best use of their resources, especially because their top position prospect, Mike Fontenot, is a second baseman.

Who will be the spring's biggest surprise?

Two years ago, Rodrigo Lopez rode his momentum from winter ball through spring training and went from minor league free agent to a spot on the Opening Day roster. He began the 2002 season in the bullpen but wound up finishing as runner-up in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Last spring, DuBose put the Orioles on notice that he was fully healed from rotator cuff surgery and starting to look like the pitcher the Oakland Athletics picked 21st overall in the 1997 draft. He started last season at Triple-A Ottawa but wound up going 3-5 with a 3.71 ERA in 10 starts for the Orioles.

So who's next? Maybe right-handed pitcher Bautista. The Orioles got him from the Florida Marlins in the Jeff Conine trade, and team officials can't wait to see how this 6-foot-5 power pitcher looks in big league camp this spring.

With four starting pitching spots up for grabs, maybe Bautista's time will come sooner than expected.

"He could certainly be a big boost," Beattie said. "I think probably in a good scenario, he could be ready for the second half of the season, but it may come sooner.

"Both he and John Maine are going to be at Double-A to start the year, and things happen quickly from Double-A. ... If they demonstrate that they're ready to move, we're going to move them."

How will Melvin Mora adjust to third base?

In theory, the left side of the Orioles' infield -- Tejada at shortstop and Mora at third -- has improved significantly over last year's rather immobile duo of Deivi Cruz and Tony Batista.

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