HAVE THE ORIOLES IMPROVED ENOUGH TO MAKE WAVES IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST?
The consensus answer now is "no." Sure, the bullpen is drastically better and the offense also looks more dangerous with the addition of Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff. Before the news of Kris Benson's injury, the rotation also seemed stronger, if for no other reason than Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen are a year older and Jaret Wright likely will be an upgrade over Bruce Chen. The problem is the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox also figure to have improved since last season, and while the Toronto Blue Jays lost some pitching, they gained slugger Frank Thomas. If you compared the Orioles position by position and pitcher by pitcher with those three teams, they'd still come up short in many of the matchups.
Can Jay Gibbons become an adequate first baseman?
Club officials wonder if the often-injured Gibbons has the necessary athleticism and tools to play first base. Gibbons, who lost his starting right-field spot last season and isn't interested in becoming a full-time designated hitter at age 30, has played only 86 career games at first and hasn't been there regularly since the minors. He has gotten good reviews for his offseason work at first with bench coach Tom Trebelhorn. However, as Javy Lopez learned last spring, the position requires far more than merely fielding ground balls. Gibbons will get a chance this spring, but he's no better than third on the team's depth chart behind Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff, and he'd really have to impress to be considered the everyday first baseman.
Are there enough at-bats available to keep everyone happy?
The Orioles have a lot of similar parts, which could make manager Sam Perlozzo's job difficult. He might have to rely on platoons and, in some cases, sacrifice defense to keep his best players in the lineup. Huff is considered a shaky outfielder, but if he is used exclusively at designated hitter or first base, Millar and Gibbons will see their at-bats cut substantially. So Huff will have to play some outfield, and that potentially means less time for Jay Payton and Corey Patterson. Payton and Millar were outspoken in Boston when they weren't pleased with their playing time. This could be Perlozzo's biggest challenge in 2007.
Will Miguel Tejada show signs of slowing down?
Tejada's home-run total (24) was down again last season, but it's hard to find fault with a year when he batted .330, set a franchise record with 214 hits, drove in 100 runs and played in all 162 games. Though he was criticized for his lack of range at shortstop early last season, he got much better as his knee became healthier. He finished with 19 errors, his lowest total since 2002. Tejada, who has played in 1,080 consecutive games, also has realized the importance of taking better care of his body, putting himself through a more rigorous workout regimen this offseason. Tejada will turn 31 in May, but the Orioles expect the same exuberant and productive player they have seen in the past.
What will Nick Markakis do for an encore?
Last year was a tale of three seasons for the rookie outfielder, who started in a terrible slump, went on an offensive tear for three months and slumped again in September. Markakis' confidence and work ethic impressed his teammates and coaches, who noted how the 23-year-old stayed on an even keel through the highs and lows of his rookie season. Those characteristics should help Markakis avoid a sophomore slump, which has befallen many players before him.
How much will Aubrey Huff improve the Orioles' offense?
Huff's numbers put him in impressive company. He is one of 10 players in baseball to have five consecutive seasons with 20 homers and 25 doubles, and one of 17 players to have hit 20 or more home runs for five consecutive years. He has also averaged 92 RBIs over the past four seasons. But the home run and RBI totals of the corner outfielder, infielder and designated hitter also have dropped each of the past three seasons, leading some scouts to suggest that he is on the decline. Though he might not be the same threat as in 2003, when he had 34 home runs and 107 RBIs, Huff is still a sizable upgrade for the Orioles and could make teams think twice about pitching around Tejada.
How good is Erik Bedard?
The 27-year-old left-hander set career highs in wins (15), innings (196 1/3 ) and strikeouts (171). His 3.76 ERA, also a career best, ranked ninth in the American League. And he did it all for a fourth-place team in the unforgiving AL East. Still, Bedard struggled at times with his consistency. He went through one stretch with just one win in 10 outings and another stretch when he went winless in seven starts. Still, each year, Bedard has seemingly gotten better, smarter and more confident. One scout who watched him several times last year called the Oriole one of the top five pitchers in the AL.
Was spending $40 million-plus on a bullpen makeover a foolish investment?