Atmosphere better in 2006, but a lot remains up in the air

Orioles Preview

Baseball 2006

April 02, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Two things about the Orioles became abundantly clear as they staggered to the end of the 2005 season: They weren't a very good team, and their clubhouse was a mess.

The facts, in both cases, were indisputable.

They lost 60 of their last 92 games to post a franchise-record eighth straight losing season. And between that and the onslaught of bummer buzz generated by various Rafael Palmeiro steroids revelations, Sidney Ponson's alcohol-related problems, manager Lee Mazzilli's firing and the likelihood of an offseason front office makeover, they could barely function as teammates.

"It just got to the point where half the team wasn't talking to the other half of the team at times. It seemed like everybody was mad. It was pretty miserable," outfielder Jay Gibbons told The Sun's Jeff Zrebiec recently.

The organization sought to better both the team and clubhouse atmosphere during the offseason, and, it seems,succeeded in one case.

The Orioles might not fare much better than last season, when they won 74 games and finished fourth in the American League East, but they're certainly a happier and more cohesive unit.

At the very least, the circus has moved on.

Ponson, released last August, now pitches in St. Louis. Reliever Steve Kline, an overly talkative bust, is in San Francisco. Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa are out of baseball.

Although the unhappiness that led shortstop Miguel Tejada to issue a trade demand last winter (later rescinded) could return at any time, the Orioles' Jeff Conine told the Associated Press: "There definitely won't be any turmoil in the clubhouse. It's just going to be a bunch of guys working together to do some damage in the East."

The club's resolve to improve the atmosphere was most evident in the decision to sign both Conine and Kevin Millar, veterans with similar skill sets.

Bringing in both didn't make baseball sense, but it guaranteed that the changes in the clubhouse would be reinforced.

Conine demands a high standard of professionalism. Millar, a comic clubhouse leader on the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox, keeps everyone loose. Bringing back manager Sam Perlozzo, who replaced Mazzilli on an interim basis, and giving him a three-year contract was another plus for the atmosphere.

Mazzilli, now a New York Yankees coach, bonded with few players in his year and a half on the job and received little support in return.

The personable Perlozzo is a longtime player favorite and has loosened things to the point that in spring camp players were telling a morning joke of the day.

"There is a better group of guys here, guys more willing to hang around, talk to each other a lot more," Gibbons told Zrebiec. "People don't have to worry about offending other people. It makes it a lot more fun to come to the ballpark."

Of course, winning is what really makes it fun for players to come to the park, and the Orioles' prospects for improvement in that area aren't as sunny.

All-Star closer B.J. Ryan is gone, replaced by 24-year-old Chris Ray, who has never recorded a major league save.

The front office took several shortcuts during the winter, gambling on inexpensive, low-risk changes that might work out instead of taking on proven but expensive commodities such as Carlos Delgado.

But Javy Lopez is already back at DH after struggling at a new position, first base, and center fielder Corey Patterson is,well, looking like the .215 hitter he was for the Cubs last year.

Chances are slim that any outfit that pinches pennies will disrupt matters for long in a division in which the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox are always retooling, and, now, the Toronto Blue Jays have spent aggressively in a bold attempt to get back to the playoffs.

If the Orioles are going to pull a semblance of a surprise along the lines of their 62-game stay in first place early last season, their starting rotation will provide the foundation.

The everyday lineup has too many questions, as does the bullpen.

Is there a productive center fielder between Patterson and Luis Matos?

Will Gibbons offer Tejada enough protection?

Will Brian Roberts be able to play at a high level so soon after a serious elbow injury?

Is Ray ready to close?

Is LaTroy Hawkins a reasonable Plan B?

The rotation, on the other hand, is set, and it has a high potential upside.

Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen and newcomer Kris Benson combined for 38 wins last season, and there is hope that new pitching coach Leo Mazzone will unleash the monster in Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard. Things could get interesting if so.

Oddly enough, the off-putting collapse of '05 probably raised the fans' tolerance for losing, at least in the short term, making it more acceptable as long as the team behaves more positively and professionally than in 2005.

Moral victories don't count in the major leagues, but after the sheer horror of 2005, the Orioles are rebounding from rock bottom, and regaining their self-respect is where that starts.

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