Improved O's look ahead, saying success is `a couple players away'

Shopping list is fairly clear

strong finish breeds optimism

Orioles

October 05, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Ask anyone inside the Orioles' organization. Do a random check of officials and scouts with other teams.

Then do the math.

Everyone seems to be in agreement the Orioles are "only a couple players away," a phrase that could become their winter slogan, if such a thing existed. Improved by seven games this year, they might be on the cusp of contending in a division that has long been reviled for its unforgiving nature.

Optimism came with a 41-36 record in the second half, a surge that might have saved the job of first-year manager Lee Mazzilli. They were 18-10 in September. They no longer were easy marks for teams trying to use them to build momentum for the playoffs.

"We have the talent here," said reliever Jason Grimsley. "You can see this team winning easy."

"You have to agree," Mazzilli said, "we're not that far away."

The gap might seem smaller if not for a 3-14 start in June, when speculation about Mazzilli began to heat up with the weather. And if not for a 12-game losing streak that ended on Aug. 29.

Both stretches could have been crippling, but the Orioles walked away Sunday with their best record in five years. They went from 71-91 to 78-84 in one season, despite the usual assortment of injuries that test the organization's depth and patience.

"It's been great, the best time of my life," said Mazzilli, who was hired in November after the Orioles had four straight losing seasons under Mike Hargrove.

Mazzilli, with one guaranteed year left on his contract, vows to be a better manager after navigating through some choppy waters in 2004. He angered players during a meeting in Oakland two months ago, and his handling of pitchers drew criticism inside the clubhouse. So did his frequent references to his former employers.

"He wants to do everything like he did with the Yankees, and it doesn't work that way," said one prominent veteran. "A lot of guys feel that way."

Asked if Mazzilli lost the clubhouse, another veteran said, "You're assuming that he ever had it."

But other players seemed relieved no change was made, citing the benefits of continuity.

"It's a year of experience under your belt," Mazzilli said, "just like my guys that played a full year for the first time."

Winning has a way of calming those same waters.

"From the standpoint of what we've accomplished and where we've been and where we're going, we've done a lot of good things," Mazzilli said. "I'm proud of my guys. I see a big difference from spring training to the end of the year. They gained confidence, knowing they could do good things. I don't feel like they have the impression that they can be intimidated."

The attitude began to change as the ink dried on shortstop Miguel Tejada's six-year, $72 million contract. He was the team's Most Valuable Player. He was its beating heart.

"If you take him away from what our club's done," said pitching coach Ray Miller, "you'd see drastic reductions in a lot of areas."

Tejada became the 24th different player to record 150 RBIs - it has been done 44 times - and only the seventh in the past 42 years, but it's the winning that got him excited. You never saw his post-game handshake-and-hug, so complicated that it should come with instructions, after a loss.

"I feel real good about what we're doing," he said. "I hope the owner and everybody here believes we can win next year."

That seems to be the prevailing attitude, and not just inside the B&O warehouse.

"If they get another pitcher, they're going to be dangerous," said Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "They could get old pretty quick, but if they use their resources, they could be a notch below the Red Sox and the Yankees. The left side of the infield might be the best in baseball. They're not that far away."

Pitching wasn't a prime concern last winter, when the Orioles were throwing money at Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. They re-signed Sidney Ponson for $22.5 million over three years and made him the No. 1 starter, but mostly by default. The other four members of the rotation didn't have a full season in the majors.

Ponson didn't have a full season of success, going 3-12 in the first half and 8-3 in the second.

"Sidney's never really been a No. 1. He's been a No. 3 or No. 4," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "Is he in the category of a Pedro [Martinez] or a [Mike] Mussina or a Randy Johnson or a [Curt] Schilling? No. Those are No. 1 pitchers. He's not a No. 1 starter, and I think deep down he knew it."

Rodrigo Lopez, twice banished to the bullpen, led the staff with 14 wins, and it's clear the Orioles need an ace. They like Minnesota's Brad Radke, though he might not want to leave the Twins as a free agent. They also have interest in the Philadelphia Philllies' Eric Milton, a University of Maryland alum, and they sent two scouts to watch the Florida Marlins' Carl Pavano.

"I think we're only a couple players away, maybe a good front-line starting pitcher," Ponson said.

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