O's still stuck in middle of mighty AL East

Starting pitching a concern compared with Yanks, Sox

3rd-place finish likely again

Spring Training

February 19, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

As the Orioles attempt to pick up significant ground on the two teams that finished ahead of them last season, they also must look back to make sure nobody is gaining on them. Such is the life of a third-place club.

Have the Orioles done enough? Did the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox do too much?

The Orioles improved their lineup, bullpen and bench, but they haven't touched a starting rotation that won't scare anybody outside of Baltimore.

The Yankees, meanwhile, traded for a five-time Cy Young Award winner, Randy Johnson, and handed out generous free-agent contracts to Carl Pavano, who was courted by the Orioles, and Jaret Wright.

And the Red Sox signed Matt Clement, another hot commodity on the market, and veteran left-hander David Wells.

"It's tough to ignore that," outfielder Larry Bigbie said. "With the pitchers that are coming into the league, it's something to think about, especially as a hitter. Anytime you have Randy Johnson and guys like that in your division, it's going to cause some difficulties, but this is the division everybody wants to play in."

It's a division with a revolving door that's still spinning from all the activity.

Johnson needed to duck his head to get through it, but he came out the other side wearing pinstripes.

Fresh off their October meltdown, when they blew a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees fortified their bullpen with Felix Rodriguez and left-hander Mike Stanton, and signed free-agent first baseman Tino Martinez and second baseman Tony Womack.

They also were tabbed as early favorites to sign center fielder Carlos Beltran, but the New York Mets forked over $119 million over seven years, and the Yankees were jilted for a change.

Sympathizers outside the Bronx were scarce.

Red Sox Nation, still soaking up its first World Series championship in 86 years long after the champagne had dried, can't be sure that staff ace Curt Schilling will be ready for Opening Day after undergoing ankle surgery.

Pedro Martinez is gone. So is Derek Lowe, which leaves Schilling heading a rotation that now includes Clement and former Houston Astros right-hander Wade Miller.

Boston general manager Theo Epstein didn't exactly stand pat after his team swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. He also signed free-agent shortstop Edgar Renteria, outfielder Jay Payton and reliever Matt Mantei, and traded first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to the Mets.

"Until the games are played, everybody will say the Red Sox and Yankees are at the front of the division," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said. "I don't know who would be one and two, but they'd be at the front."

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who posted the best record in franchise history last season at 70-91, remain the last refuge for castoffs, with the usual assortment of low-level signings that included former Orioles outfielders Marty Cordova and Chris Singleton.

They also were gamblers, rolling the dice that pitchers Hideo Nomo and Denny Neagle and second baseman Roberto Alomar had something left. They acquired outfielder Danny Bautista and infielders Travis Lee, Alex Gonzalez and Josh Phelps, and improved the rotation by trading outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. to the Arizona Diamondbacks for left-hander Casey Fossum.

By comparison, the Toronto Blue Jays were stuck in neutral, their chances of moving forward - and out of last place - stalled by the loss of free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado and budget constraints that were lifted too late to help them this season.

They responded to a 67-94 finish, which put them 33 1/2 games behind the Yankees, by adding infielders Corey Koskie and Shea Hillenbrand and left-hander Scott Schoeneweis.

Optimism for the future came with the recent announcement that the Blue Jays would commit $210 million to their payroll over the 2005-2007 seasons.

"The shackles have been taken off a little bit," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said.

So where does this leave the Orioles? Most likely ahead of Tampa Bay and Toronto, no small feat considering they finished fourth for six straight years before moving up one spot in 2004. If they're going to hold their ground again, at least let it be at a higher elevation.

Sammy Sosa represented the gaudiest move of their offseason, but baseball insiders are more impressed by the additions of free-agent relievers Steve Kline and Steve Reed. The Orioles also strengthened their bench by signing utility infielder Chris Gomez. "I don't think the Yankees and Red Sox are more in front of us now," said an Orioles scout. "The guys they brought in are unproven in this league. Pavano was below .500. Guys don't always come from the National League to the American League and do well. And if anything, we've put more space behind us, especially with Toronto losing Delgado. That's huge.

"If you have any confidence in [pitching coach] Ray Miller, you've got to think he's going to bring along these young guys pretty good. And our lineup is second to none. It stacks right up there with the Yankees and Red Sox. You add Sammy Sosa, it's got to help you. He's going to tear up the three, four and five starters in the American League.

"I think we're going to be OK. I really do."

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