Upstart O's fate rides on myriad answers

Baseball's Midseason Report

July 14, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

In some ways, the Orioles haven't changed much since last season. Injuries and inconsistent pitching contributed to a terrible stretch that threatened to ruin them before the break. An important winter acquisition looks like a bust. And it's anybody's guess whether manager Lee Mazzilli returns next year, his uncertain status impossible to ignore.

But last year's Orioles began the second half with a 37-48 record, their worst since 1999, and mired in last place in the American League East. They had lost 25 of their previous 38 games, including a weekend series to the woeful Kansas City Royals. Only 85 games into his first season with the club, Mazzilli sat firmly on the hot seat.

The temperature isn't quite as high in 2005, not with the Orioles winning three of four against the Boston Red Sox to move within two games of first place. Not with their record at 47-40, the best in eight years, and the national media fixated on their emergence as contenders.

"I think the message has been sent to the whole league that we're here to stay," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "I think we're good enough to be around all the way through."

That point is open to debate.

Many industry types believe the Orioles need a front-line starting pitcher or risk sliding down the standings as if greased on the seat of their pants. They spent 62 consecutive days in first place and were 14 games above .500 on three occasions, most recently June 21. But a 2-11 stretch raised serious questions about their staying power.

Plenty of others surround this club as it attempts to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

Can the Orioles win without making a significant trade?

The players seem to think so.

"We were 14 games above .500 with the guys we have in this clubhouse," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "We were eight games up [in the division]. I don't see why we can't do the same thing. Every team wants to try to improve in any way you can, but if this is what we're here with, I think we're pretty good."

Outfielder Larry Bigbie said it depends on what the other teams do. "If teams in our division go out and make some big deadline moves, then we might have to do that, too," he said. "But right now there's no reason to panic. This is the team we have right now."

It could change quickly. The Orioles remain interested in Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett and have expressed a willingness to trade Bigbie, reliever Jorge Julio and minor league pitcher Hayden Penn. A source close to Burnett said the right-hander would be open to signing an extension with the club, if the money is right, but he's intrigued by the idea of testing the free-agent market. And the Orioles have shied away from half-season rentals in the past.

"If you're going to give up someone as talented as Penn, you would hope whoever you get back is someone who's going to be a dominant No. 1 guy and be here for a while," pitching coach Ray Miller said.

The Orioles also like pitchers Mark Redman, Kip Wells, Jason Schmidt and Jason Jennings. Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations, said last week that the club is "poised" to make a trade if the pieces fall into place.

"We're going to be just fine," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "We don't need anybody. We just need guys to stay strong mentally in the second half."

Will Erik Bedard and Javy Lopez make that much of a difference?

Players agree that the most important additions will come from within, when Bedard and Lopez return from injuries. Bedard continued his rehab assignment this week at Single-A Delmarva and is scheduled to pitch Monday in Minnesota. Lopez isn't expected to rejoin the club before the three-city road trip ends.

"We need Javy and Bedard," Mora said. "Without those two guys, I don't think we can make it. They give you the balance you need. I know Bedard can beat anybody, and Javy is a hitting machine. That's all we need."

Bedard was 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA before spraining a ligament in his left knee and going on the disabled list May 26. The Orioles are 17-24 in his absence.

"The loss of Bedard, we handled it for a while," Miller said, "but I think it took a toll because of the way you use your bullpen."

Mazzilli said the return of Bedard and Lopez will be "a shot in the arm." But he's open to any trade that will improve the club.

"You're always looking to do something, and if it's going to make us a better team, then so be it. Then I'd do it," he said. "You have to look at what's out there and what you're looking to do. But I don't think we want to sell the future for something that can't be long-term."

Is the rotation good enough without any changes?

Orioles starters had a 4.15 ERA in 68 games through June 19 before posting a 6.61 ERA the remainder of the first half.

A rival general manager said everyone respects the Orioles' lineup, but the feeling around the league is they don't have enough pitching to outlast the Red Sox and New York Yankees, or win a playoff series.

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