Neighbor puts heat on O's to rise in '05

October 02, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE ARRIVAL OF a major league team in Washington impacts the Orioles immediately in one regard:

The 2005 season becomes a must-win proposition for them.

Washington's To-Be-Named-Laters are certain to attract attention and generate excitement in their inaugural season, even with a losing record and a crummy temporary home.

The Orioles need to field a winner to generate some excitement of their own.

Establishing themselves as the successful team in the neighborhood would help minimize the impact of having to share the regional baseball market.

A trip to the World Series isn't necessary; nor is a league or divisional title.

It's unreasonable to expect such achievements after seven years of losing.

But a winning team that contends for a playoff berth (and maybe grabs one) is a reasonable goal that would surely signal progress.

It needs to happen in 2005, not in that vague bastion of endless promise known as "the future."

The timing of Washington's return to the bigs is somewhat fortuitous in that sense, as the Orioles have more pieces of a winning puzzle now than at any time in the past five years.

Former manager Mike Hargrove never had as much to work with as Lee Mazzilli did in 2004.

Should Mazzilli return for a second season? He has earned the opportunity by leading the team to a 40-33 record since the All-Star break.

The decision isn't as easy as it should be given those numbers. Mazzilli hasn't wowed with his shrewdness or persona. It could be argued that a team ranked third in the American League in hitting and sixth in pitching should have fared better.

On the other hand, Mazzilli had to deal with a Triple-A starting rotation early in the season, which led to a May collapse not of his making. Brutal circumstances for a rookie manager.

But the Orioles continued to play hard and did more than just avoid the season-ending collapses that marked Hargrove's tenure. They turned themselves around and improved throughout the second half of the season.

Mazzilli deserves credit. He obviously is doing some things right.

Besides, his bosses, Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, also will be in the final years of their contracts in 2005. If Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos fired Mazzilli now, the replacement would also become a short-timer if Flanagan and Beattie departed after next season, leading to yet another managerial change.

Enough already. Give the current regime a chance to complete what it has started. Make changes only if a winner fails to materialize.

Angelos told The Sun last week he was committed to another active year on the free agent market, an encouraging sign. The team needs at least one starting pitcher (two would be nice), a backup catcher and another big bat.

Add that to what's already in place and the Orioles would become almost formidable.

Miguel Tejada is the perfect centerpiece, Melvin Mora almost as valuable. Javy Lopez has brought a solid bat (anyone expecting 43 home runs was delusional) and should produce more with a better backup.

At first base, the team was right not to trigger the renewal clause in Rafael Palmeiro's contract. Although Palmeiro has hit better lately, his production has declined and the team needs to be able to mull all alternatives, including Toronto's Carlos Delgado.

At second base, Brian Roberts has won the years-long competition with Jerry Hairston, partly because of Hairston's many injuries, but mainly because of how well he has played.

After improbably setting the team's single-season record for doubles, Roberts is entrenched. Hairston, a fine player himself, should be traded rather than subjected to continuing uncertainty.

In the outfield, Larry Bigbie clearly is an everyday player either in left or center. David Newhan, a marvel from the moment he arrived, also belongs in the mix. B.J. Surhoff? Bring him back again, even at age 40.

Otherwise, it's unclear whether Luis Matos can hit enough or Jay Gibbons can stay healthy enough.

The pitching staff is where the most substantive improvements must come, of course, and here's a thought for the bullpen:

Go with a "closer by committee" featuring B.J. Ryan, Jason Grimsley and Jorge Julio. Mix and match their strengths to various situations, letting them worry about getting three outs rather than living up to the job.

The starting rotation is easier to figure. Rodrigo Lopez is fine. He happens to be the team's best pitcher. Sidney Ponson also is solid, although his offseason conditioning needs to be monitored so he is ready in April, not July.

At least one other starter should emerge from a candidate pool including Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Matt Riley, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose and Bruce Chen.

Adding a quality free agent starter would move the Orioles close to fielding a winning team in 2005.

It's time for them to make that happen.

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