Angelos upbeat about O's in '04

Excited by young pitchers, owner says division title within realm of possibility

Baseball

April 03, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles owner Peter Angelos isn't setting any ultimatums for his ballclub this season, but after committing $123 million to free agents this winter, his expectations have certainly risen.

Asked this week how he would feel if the team fails to end its string of six consecutive losing seasons, Angelos pledged to stay the course, saying, "This is not a one-year project."

Then he added, "I don't want to talk about [.500]. This is not a .500 team. It's not an under .500 team, or a team that's going to win one game over 50 percent. I don't give a darn who the opposition is."

The Orioles have endured six consecutive fourth-place finishes in the American League East, and even with the additions they've made, most analysts predict they will fall well short of challenging the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox atop the division.

But Angelos pointed to the great unknown surrounding the Orioles' young pitching staff and said he hasn't ruled out winning the division this year.

"I'm going to tell you right now," he said, "that's not impossible."

The Orioles will start the season tomorrow night at Camden Yards with Sidney Ponson pitching opposite Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.

After Ponson, the Orioles' rotation includes four pitchers who have never pitched a full season in the big leagues: Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley and Erik Bedard. That group has combined to make 20 career major league starts and post 10 career major league victories.

"If you take that pitching staff, and they perform near the maximum level of their potential, this team can win or beat any team on any given day," Angelos said. "That, I guess, is what has made so many people interested and excited about the team, that you really can't put a cap on its potential at this juncture."

Angelos said he is "very pleased" about the direction the franchise is headed under vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, who are both in the second year of three-year contracts.

They inherited a team that finished 67-95 in 2002 and oversaw an improvement to 71-91 last season as they started making wholesale changes.

The Orioles fired manager Mike Hargrove, replacing him with former Yankees first base coach Lee Mazzilli. They traded Ponson and Jeff Conine for four pitching prospects and made a last-minute deal to sign 2002 first-round draft pick Adam Loewen.

Those improvements helped the Orioles rise to 18th in Baseball America's latest rankings of major league farm systems. The Orioles had sunk to 30th, or dead last, in those same rankings a year ago.

Beattie and Flanagan managed to stockpile free agents this winter and still bring the payroll down, as the contracts of Albert Belle, Scott Erickson and Tony Batista expired.

Last year's payroll was about $60 million. This year, even after signing Ponson, Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike DeJean, the payroll is closer to $55 million.

After this season, the Orioles will save another $18 million when the contracts for David Segui, Omar Daal, Buddy Groom and Marty Cordova expire. So the Orioles figure to be prominent players in the market again next winter when the likes of Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Beltran could be available as free agents.

For all those reasons, Angelos said he won't let another losing record deter them.

"We'll continue building the team as we promised we would do prior to the commencement of the 2003 postseason," Angelos said. "We'll just continue the program."

But to hear everyone from the players to the front office tell it, this isn't a team that should be thinking about .500 anyway.

Mazzilli and Tejada, the former Oakland Athletics shortstop who signed a six-year, $72 million contract, have both been to the postseason the past four years. Lopez, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal, never went through a full season with the Atlanta Braves that didn't end with the playoffs.

"When I play the game, I'm not playing just to play, I'm playing to win," Lopez said. "I like to help the team make the playoffs or the World Series. That's definitely my main goal."

Said Mazzilli: "If you come into the season setting a goal that's not to get to postseason play, the question is, why are you playing?"

Beattie said he would definitely be disappointed if the team's record doesn't improve again this season. "I mean everything we've done and the players we have coming on, I think we're a much-improved club over last year," he said. "Our goal is to get to the playoffs."

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