O's new look wears well in April

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

May 02, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It might be too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions about the new-look Orioles, but the first month of the 2004 season has proved that co-vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan succeeded in their most basic mission.

The Orioles are a truly competitive team for the first time since the franchise went into decline after the 1997 season, which should translate into a recharged fan base and a healthier revenue stream to pay for future improvements.

The arrival of marquee hitters Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro has changed the way opposing teams view the attack and taken pressure off a young pitching staff. The Orioles won 12 of their first 20 games, took three of five from the imposing Boston Red Sox and spent some time in first place in April. Not a bad start for new manager Lee Mazzilli.

Who really believed that the club would be this competitive coming out of the gate with four inexperienced pitchers in the starting rotation? Well, Beattie did, but only those expert in interpreting his dour New England countenance were able to understand that his innate optimism - tempered by all those years growing up within broadcast range of the Red Sox - was genuine.

The offseason formula was simple enough: Make the Orioles attractive to the fans again and worry about the finer points later.

The Orioles won seven of 11 games against the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays despite the predictably inconsistent performance of the starting rotation. The balanced attack and the surprisingly efficient bullpen have combined to carry them through an upbeat first month.

No doubt, there will be some difficult times ahead, especially if young starters Matt Riley and Kurt Ainsworth continue to struggle, but there still is some untapped upside potential in the Orioles' batting order.

Lopez got off to a great start, Tejada is hitting for average, and Palmeiro has been knocking in runs at a rate above his career RBI/at-bat ratio, but none of them has unleashed the power that their career numbers indicate is inevitable - especially at homer-friendly Camden Yards.

The young hitters at the back of the lineup - Jay Gibbons, Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie - have contributed to the team's steady offensive production, but they have yet to play up to their full potential.

The three ended the month batting .250 or lower, but Gibbons has driven in 16 runs, Bigbie has four home runs and Matos has five stolen bases. They clearly are on board and getting more comfortable every day, which should allow the Orioles to improve on their No. 5 league ranking in runs.

The loss of David Segui could hurt some, but the pending return of speedy infielder Jerry Hairston should create new offensive options for Mazzilli, even as it creates a decision at second base.

May figures to be a tough month for Mazzilli, who will have to sort out the Hairston/Brian Roberts situation and decide whether to make any changes in the starting rotation.

It appears that Roberts has earned the right to remain in the starting lineup at second with his .300 batting average and seven stolen bases, but the Orioles also have to protect the trade value of both players.

The bigger issue may be whether to move highly successful middle reliever Rodrigo Lopez back into the rotation in place of one of the inconsistent youngsters.

Here's some unsolicited advice: Leave the terrific bullpen alone and stay the course. Things are going pretty well.

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