For now, pitching coach remains O's best catch

March 01, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

It should come as no surprise that I have a lot of questions about the Orioles. Who doesn't?

But my questions differ from those you're liable to hear most often as the club wades through its spring season on the way to Opening Day 2006.

A lot of people are wondering if Corey Patterson or Luis Matos will be the center fielder.

I'm wondering if pitching coach Leo Mazzone can turn 21-year-old Adam Loewen back into an ace-in-waiting.

People want to know how manager Sam Perlozzo will handle the first base/left-field armada of Kevin Millar, Jeff Conine, Richard Hidalgo, Javy Lopez and, let's see, did I leave anyone out?

I want to know if Daniel Cabrera might blossom into a monster under Mazzone.

People want to know if Kris Benson will make as many headlines with his pitching as his wife does with whatever it is she does.

I want to know about the chances of young pitchers such as Hayden Penn and Garret Olson prospering with Mazzone's voice in their ears and catcher Ramon Hernandez helping them out.

Can the Orioles break their streak of eight straight losing seasons? How many games will they win in 2006? Those are your basic, fundamental questions.

I'm more interested in developments that could impact 2007 and beyond.

Given that Hernandez and Benson were the Orioles' only offseason pickups who generated anything resembling widespread interest from other clubs, I'd say the chances are remote that the club's various pieces will meld into a winning team in 2006.

But the long-range prospects are interesting because of the addition of Mazzone, a noted pitching guru, and the presence of strong young arms in the organization.

The Orioles' best chance of escaping their losing cycle is the possibility that Mazzone, who signed a three-year contract in November, could meld a majority of the youngsters into major leaguers in the coming years.

Actually, that possibility might be the Orioles' only chance of escaping their losing cycle, thanks to the curiously conservative approach to free agency that owner Peter Angelos has developed in the past few years.

That approach means the Orioles pretty much have to improve from within if they're going to improve at all, and while their much-maligned minor league system is hardly spewing prospects, it does have a lot of pitchers. Aside from Loewen, Penn and Olson (and Cabrera, Erik Bedard and reliever Chris Ray, who are already in Baltimore), prospects J.J. Johnson, Ryan Keefer, Brian Finch, Sendy Rleal and Chris Britton are already on the 40-man roster, and Radhames Liz and Brandon Erbe are coming.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect Mazzone to take those arms and remake the Orioles into winners, overcoming the withering effect of years of dysfunctional management. He's just a pitching coach, not a 50-homer slugger. If he is that important, he should get a lot more than the roughly $450,000 per season he makes.

To be totally blunt about it, teams that make a big deal out of a new pitching coach generally are teams that haven't added a whole lot else.

But don't get me wrong: Mazzone's track record speaks for itself, he is turning heads in Florida, and I'm curious to see what he can do. As far as I'm concerned, the coming season will amount to a pitching lab, a regimen of a thousand different, little experiments, often barely discernible, but always important. Can certain young pitchers master certain pitches? Can they gain consistency? Firm up their confidence? Buy into Mazzone's system and become cornerstones of a better future?

Cabrera, 24, has the stuff to win 18 games a year. Bedard, 26, is popular with potential trade partners for a reason. Mazzone's ability to transform them will help determine how the Orioles fare in 2006 (as will the growth of Ray, currently slotted to be the closer even though - yikes - he has yet to record a major league save), but the long-range stakes are even higher.

The amount of substantive progress that is made among the pitchers will, more than wins and losses, determine whether 2006 is a success.

I don't mean to diminish the various other issues of the moment, which matter because, well, there's a long season ahead, for better or worse. Matos or Patterson? Give it to whoever looks the hungriest. Lopez at first base? I think he'll end up at DH.

But frankly, with the team destined to look up at most of the American League East, these issues seem fleeting, temporary, glorified excuses to pass time while Mazzone works to make the pitching better - a tedious process that represents the organization's best shot at eventually reinventing itself.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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