Ten questions for the Orioles in 2005

Spring Training

February 19, 2005|By ROCH KUBATKO

1. Which Sidney Ponson will show up in 2005?

The Orioles are hoping for the sleeker, second-half model, the one that was 8-3 after the break. His 12 losses in the first half were the most in club history, and a major reason why the Orioles sunk into last place. Anointed the Opening Night starter, the first time he was designated the staff ace, Ponson led the American League in hits and earned runs allowed. He gave up seven or more runs on seven occasions. The team is confident that Ponson's turnaround in the second half will carry over into this season, but that didn't stop them from pursuing frontline starters during the winter.

2. How will Sammy Sosa blend with the rest of the team?

He's already shown his diva tendencies by insisting on having a limo transport him to his physical in Baltimore. Get used to it. But Sosa also made it clear during his introductory news conference that this is Miguel Tejada's team, and he was careful to use the word "we" when discussing the upcoming season - correcting himself on more than a few occasions. Sosa's reputation took a major hit in Chicago last season, and since he's unsigned beyond 2005, he figures to be on his best behavior.

3. Can Sosa prevent his offensive numbers from slipping for a fifth straight season?

The Orioles must think so. In the past four years, Sosa has hit 64, 49, 40 and 35 home runs. The seven-time All-Star's OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) has gone from 1.174 in 2001 to .849 last season. The only player in major league history to hit 60 or more homers in three seasons, Sosa slumped to .253 last year with 35 homers and 80 RBIs. The Orioles don't need him to chase Barry Bonds' single-season record for homers. They'd gladly take 40 from the cleanup spot.

4. Will Luis Matos make it through a season healthy and establish himself as the everyday center fielder?

Matos is fast running out of chances. He played in only 89 games last season, none after July 21, because of a stress fracture in his right shin. The injury originated in spring training - not the first time this has happened - and it never got better. He had a rod inserted in his leg Aug. 11, and at last month's FanFest said he was completely healthy. The Orioles looked for a center fielder this winter but ended up with a right fielder (Sosa). Matos doesn't have much competition for the position. It's time to seize the opportunity, or else.

5. Does Rafael Palmeiro have anything left in the tank?

At times, it looked like he was running on fumes last season. His streak of nine consecutive seasons with at least 35 homers and 100 RBIs ended in 2004. He batted a combined .227 in May, June and July, and his average fell to a season-low .242 on July 7. But Palmeiro hit .306 with nine homers and 25 RBIs over his last 29 games, and the Orioles re-signed him to a one-year deal with the intention of making him the regular designated hitter. Palmeiro needs 78 hits to reach 3,000 for his career.

6. Who will be the closer?

Jorge Julio went 22-for-26 in save chances, but the club moved setup man B.J. Ryan into the role late in the season. Julio remains a candidate to be traded before the Orioles head north, but only if Ryan is going to become the ninth-inning specialist. At least one executive from another team said he was told by the Orioles that Ryan would be the closer. Signing right-handers Steve Reed and Jay Witasick appeared to signal an end to Julio's tenure with the Orioles, but he'll be in camp, hoping to reclaim his old job.

7. Can Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose return from injuries and compete for starting jobs?

Almost forgotten, these two guys really could complicate manager Lee Mazzilli's life when it comes to setting up his rotation - not that he's complaining. Ainsworth made only seven starts last year, allowing six or more runs four times, before undergoing surgery on June 9 to remove fluid from his right elbow. DuBose made 14 starts before going on the disabled list June 20 and having bone chips and spurs removed from his left elbow. Both pitchers say they are 100 percent. If one of them is right, the Orioles will feel much better about not adding a starter.

8. Is this a make-or-break season for the manager and two team executives?

Mazzilli was on the hot seat at the All-Star break, just halfway through his first season as a major league manager. Welcome to the show. He's in the final year of his guaranteed contract, and it's fair to assume that he'll be catching more heat if the Orioles play poorly in the first half. Meanwhile, the contracts of executive vice president Jim Beattie and vice president Mike Flanagan expire after this season, and there are no assurances that they'll return in 2006. Majority owner Peter Angelos must determine whether the two-headed system is worth keeping.

9. Will the young starters make significant progress under pitching coach Ray Miller?

Before Miller's return on June 26, the Orioles ranked last in the AL with a 5.34 ERA in 69 games. In 93 games under Miller, they rose to second with a 4.24 ERA. Each question about the team's failure to land a frontline starter is countered with assurances that Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Matt Riley are going to be much better in 2005 with a full season of Miller's tutelage. If not, the Orioles will have to put up runs the way Peyton Manning produces touchdowns.

10. Will this team ever compete for a division title again?

Good luck finding anyone outside the organization who thinks they will this year. Their lineup stacks up against anyone's, and the bullpen should give them a decided edge in most games. But the experts keep pointing to the rotation as reason why another third-place finish is likely.

- Roch Kubatko

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