Building a rally

The O's say they'll take a cut at competing in 2006, but their focus is on following an organizational plan that will have them in scoring position year after year

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Baseball 2006

April 02, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

It is not a two-, three- or fouryear plan that the Orioles front office says it is operating under. Club officials are not asking their frustrated fan base for patience while trying to sell it on the merits of another tedious rebuilding process.

As the team's 2006 season begins tomorrow at Camden Yards with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in town, executives are maintaining - at least publicly - that the Orioles can win now in the unforgiving American League East.

"We're not just looking at this season and saying that we are waiting for next year," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan, who presided over a front office makeover this offseason. "That would be totally inaccurate.We expect to come out and be competitive from Day One, and we think we have a good enough team to do it. I am looking forward to '06, not '07."

However, the general feeling among baseball insiders is that after eight straight losing seasons, the organization is built for the future, not the present.

In a division that some prognosticators project as the strongest in baseball, the Orioles will start the season with second baseman Brian Roberts, the 2005 Most Valuable Oriole, coming off a career-threatening injury.

Star shortstop Miguel Tejada wanted out of the organization four months ago, and two of the three starting outfield positions remained unsettled as Opening Day approached.

The starting pitching staff, expected to be the backbone of the club, still lacks a bona fide ace, and the bullpen counts Chris Ray, 24, with no career saves, as its closer, and it includes not a single member of last season's Opening Day relief corps.

"I think they'd be extremely lucky to win 81 games," one American League general manager said.

Focus on pitching

Though wins are clearly the measuring stick for the Orioles, the continued development this season of their young pitching, both on the major and minor league levels, will ultimately determine how close the organization is to contending.

When the new-look front office met in October, it decided on a direction that would govern its decisionmaking process. It started with bolstering scouting on all levels - amateur, professional and international - and keeping the focus on a burgeoning farm system. Personnelwise, the thought process was to get the core players locked up to longterm contracts and build around them via the age-old formula of good pitching and sound defense.

"In baseball, anything can happen, especially if you get good pitching," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "The offense for the [world champion] White Sox was one of the worst [in runs scored] in the American League last year. The majority of the teams that get to the playoffs are the teams that pitch and play defense. That's why our focus has been on that direction. We do think our starting pitching is our strength."

The Orioles spent $27.5 million over four seasons this offseason on Ramon Hernandez, a catcher with a sterling reputation for handling young pitchers. They acquired center fielder Corey Patterson in another[ move to help improve the defense up the middle, and added veteran right-hander Kris Benson to stabilize the rotation. And they made what many in the industry consider their biggest addition, luring Leo Mazzone, the celebrated pitching coach who presided over a pitching dynasty in Atlanta, to work with their young arms.

"They are not going to win this season, but [Daniel] Cabrera and [Erik] Bedard are legitimate guys, [Hayden] Penn and [Adam] Loewen are quality guys and Chris Ray is the real deal," one scout said. "That is the core right there. I think their pitching in a few years has got a chance to be special. They have stemmed the tide a little and are definitely going in the right direction."

More than a few years

When Syd Thrift was hired to head the Orioles' front office in December 1999, he said his goal was to bring in athletic, affordable and winning players who could develop in the organization. But he knew success could be elusive at first. Thrift said he is proud that several players who make up the current core of the club, including Rodrigo Lopez and Melvin Mora, were added during his tenure.

"When you start the job, you can't get it done in one or two years," Thrift said. "It takes three or four years to develop position players. Pitchers can sometimes come in two or three years, especially if you are drafting college pitchers. It's always three years later when things get better."

The Flanagan-Jim Beattie regime that succeeded Thrift in December 2002 added a couple of All-Star-caliber players through free agency in Tejada and Javy Lopez, and it aimed to build a farm system that will continually supply the Orioles with players. Flanagan said the Orioles' current plan is an extension of what was in place.

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