O's planted real spring optimism in offseason

February 12, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's hard to believe that the 2007 baseball season is almost upon us. Seems like only a week or so ago, I was in Florida watching the Super Bowl, but that's probably just because time seems to pass faster as you get older.

The Orioles open pitcher and catcher workouts Thursday at their Fort Lauderdale, Fla., training facility, which should be pretty interesting now that they actually have enough capable pitchers to occupy all the practice mounds. I know this because I have been keeping careful count and there are four new middle relievers who don't look anything like Steve Kline or Mike DeJean.

Give Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette a little credit.

They identified the biggest obstacle to a successful 2007 season, then decided that there was nothing they could do about ownership and refocused on the bullpen.

Obviously, nobody is standing on line outside the warehouse waiting to buy tickets to see Danys Baez or Jamie Walker. In fact, I doubt many Orioles fans would recognize either one of them if they showed up at FanFest wearing sandwich boards. (I certainly wouldn't.) But sometimes, it's the basic moves that make all the difference.

The Orioles lost 18 games last year in which they were tied or leading after six innings, a disturbing number that if cut in half would create a plausible argument for a .500 season.

If you want to build from there, the addition of Jaret Wright to the starting rotation and Aubrey Huff at the heart of the Orioles' lineup should give fans reason to believe that the long-stumbling team can be competitive this year.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid. I can't even afford the Bud Light at stadium prices. I'm just acknowledging that the perfunctory optimism of spring is not entirely without some merit this year.

The front office didn't do everything the fans could have wished for in the offseason, but Flaniquette accomplished just about everything that could reasonably be accomplished with the resources and free-agent players available.

Sure, it would have been nice to get a big-ticket free agent like Alfonso Soriano, but if the Orioles had spent $140 million to beef up the middle of the lineup, they likely would not have been able to fix the bullpen, which means that Soriano (or Carlos Lee) would have been a nice hood ornament on another junk car headed south.

The front office opted to do the mundane things that make it possible to compete on a daily basis, and the baseball operations people have been upfront all winter about the modest goals that have been set for the 2007 club.

I wish it weren't so, but you do have to crawl before you can walk. Now, I know there are a lot of cynics out there who think the Orioles have been crawling for quite some time, and to you I have only one thing to say:

Good point.

But there is more than one way to crawl. There is the kind of crawling that precedes walking upright and then there is slithering on your belly like a reptile.

The Orioles have done their share of slithering the past nine years. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think they finally may be ready to take a step up the baseball evolutionary ladder.

Duquette has been saying for months that the goal is to build a .500 team, which sounds pretty unsatisfying after a decade of institutional defeatism until you hear him all the way out.

He views competitive sea level as a platform for success, not a hard target.

If the Orioles are a legitimate .500 team in July, then it supposedly follows that they would be a player in the trade market for the talent that might make them a wild-card contender down the stretch.

That's the kind of incremental progress I can live with, if the owner is on board.

I live to be surprised, so I'm headed down to Florida for the next six weeks, but only at great personal sacrifice to assure that Orioles fans are kept fully informed.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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