Cards, Tigers blazed trail, but O's still in wilderness

November 06, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Let's see, the St. Louis Cardinals won just 83 regular-season games before storming through the playoffs and capturing the World Series, and the Orioles managed 70 wins while finishing fourth in the American League East.

So the Orioles actually aren't that far away, right? According to that math, if they just improve enough this winter to generate 13 more wins in 2007, they could end up in the Fall Classic, right?

Sure, and sprinkling fairy dust on their bats will add 20 points to their batting averages.

There might be a few more reasons to be somewhat optimistic, or at least less pessimistic, about the Orioles after nine straight losing seasons. They have young starting pitchers Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera, the foundation of a potentially formidable rotation. They have 24-year-old closer Chris Ray. They have Nick Markakis, a sweet-swinging homegrown outfielder.

But please, let's not play fantasy baseball.

The out-of-nowhere runs of the Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers, who endured 12 straight losing seasons (the last with 71 wins in 2005) before winning the American League pennant in 2006, have encouraged long-standing losers everywhere, including Baltimore. The rallying cry: Why not us?

But those 2006 successes were, indeed, fantasies, rarer than a pinch-hit inside-the-park home run. This is the reality: Although we know better than ever now that anything is possible, the Orioles still have a long way to go before they can challenge anyone for anything.

They're coming off a second straight season in which they lost more games than the year before. They need a veteran starting pitcher, a first baseman, a left fielder and a whole new bullpen other than Ray.

The fact that an 83-win team won the Series is interesting, but it has nothing to do with the Orioles' condition. Besides, the Cardinals won 105 and 100 games in 2004 and 2005 while the Orioles were winning, um, 78 and 74. This year's records notwithstanding, the teams are in different orbits.

And while the Orioles and Tigers share a dependence on young pitching, the similarities end there. There are far more differences between the clubs.

The Orioles, to be kind, are still a work in progress, far from the point where they just need to add the finishing touches via free agency, as the Tigers did, or get hot at the right time, as the Cardinals did.

At least the current front office, headed by Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette, is ushering the team in the right general direction by hitching the future to young pitchers. True, the organization doesn't have a lot else going for it, so there really was no alternative. But planting young arms and letting them grow is the best way to turn around a loser. The Orioles should have done it a long time ago.

The problem with doing it now, of course, is it's a long-term strategy rather than a quick fix, and the public is out of patience. Orioles fans don't want to hear about what could happen in a few years. They want to win now, and after what they've put up with, you can't blame them.

That impatience puts pressure on the front office, which isn't a bad thing. The organization, starting at the top, with owner Peter Angelos, should feel compelled to make things better. Not every losing team does.

But while there has been talk of major expenditures this winter and a payroll surging past $100 million (up from $72 million on Opening Day 2006) now that the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is up and running, don't expect anything that seismic. Angelos has been mostly reluctant to pay for top-tier free agents, especially pitchers, and marquee players are loathe to play for a team that has lost for so long.

The Orioles might be able to improve in the coming months, but instead of adding the splashy name to bat cleanup and play first base or left field, they'll probably settle for a handful of no-name bullpen patches.

You can overpay for those, as the Orioles surely will need to do, and still only spend $3 million per year. That's the kind of imprudent move Angelos might be willing to make, as opposed to giving $80 million to Alfonso Soriano or shelling out $70 million for a Japanese pitching ace.

The importance of upgrading the bullpen is obvious after a season in which the Orioles blew a slew of leads. They've swung and missed on several veteran relievers recently. Maybe they'll get it right this time.

But no matter what else happens, the team eventually will rise or fall on the arms of those young pitchers. The Orioles have headed down a road, and it's a slow, bumpy road, not a highway to immediate glory.

Dreaming about a long-shot run to October is fine, but how about a .500 season first?

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