Spring story lines

March 02, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC

Five things to look out for as the Orioles' exhibition season begins:

The Mazzone influence: New pitching coach Leo Mazzone is known to be demanding on his staff, but so far he has garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews. The Orioles' rotation is essentially set, and Mazzone is impressed with the organization's stable of young arms. Pitchers will have a chance to show how much they have learned under his watchful eye over the next several weeks. Opposing hitters undoubtedly will be fed a steady diet of down-and-away fastballs, Mazzone's weapon of choice.

Effect of World Baseball Classic: Few teams have been hit as hard by the inaugural tournament as the Orioles, who lose a couple of their top position players and four-fifths of their starting rotation. The organization publicly has supported the event, but club officials are likely singing a different tune behind closed doors. They'll have their fingers crossed that their players avoid injuries in the tournament, but the starters' departures from Mazzone for an extended period could have an effect.

Youngsters get opportunity: At this point, none of the Orioles' top prospects appears to be bound for the Opening Day roster, unless you count Chris Ray, who arrived last season. But if nothing else, guys like Nick Markakis, Val Majewski, Jeff Fiorentino, Hayden Penn and Sendy Rleal will get a chance to open some eyes and put themselves into position for early call-ups. Markakis has looked sharp and is clearly the most highly touted of the bunch, but the Orioles are overflowing with corner outfielders.

Competition in center: With their competition about a week old, neither Corey Patterson nor Luis Matos has done much to separate himself as the everyday center fielder. Both have quietly and efficiently gone about their business. With Matos likely away from the Orioles to play in the WBC, Patterson could get more opportunities over the next several weeks. Manager Sam Perlozzo will be watching closely how both players perform defensively.

Looking for relief: Only Ray and setup men LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Williams have secured spots in the bullpen, though Williams is nursing a sore shoulder. Perlozzo is leaning toward using a seven-man bullpen, so there are roster spots available. Tim Byrdak, Eric DuBose, Ricky Bottalico, Jim Brower, Vic Darensbourg, Franklyn Gracesqui and John Halama will get opportunities. But the lack of a proven left-hander in the bullpen has become the club's primary concern.

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