In O's defense, team is better in every facet - except one

February 25, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --If the Oriole Way was built on a foundation of pitching and defense, then the Orioles will have to prove they can catch the ball if they want to go back to the future.

The pitching staff has been drastically retooled, with four free-agent relievers and two veteran starters. It isn't the 1995 Atlanta Braves, but the rotation is deeper and it looks like the front office succeeded in sealing the late-innings hole that leaked 18 games last season.

The batting order has been upgraded, too, though not so substantially that anyone in Boston or New York is going to be quaking in his Gucci spikes.

There's little doubt this is a better team than the one that won just 70 times last year. There's fairly universal agreement that Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette did just about everything in the realm of realistic possibility to address the major weaknesses that have prevented the Orioles from being anything close to competitive in the American League East. Now, the only question is whether they can field a good enough defensive team to complement the overhauled pitching staff.

And, once again, we are left to determine whether the proverbial glass is half full or half empty.

"We're very aware that we want to be a good defensive team," Flanagan said. "That was underlying it all."

So, he points to his fine defensive catcher (Ramon Hernandez) and his speedy center fielder (Corey Patterson) and the double-play combination of Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts and, quite correctly, concludes that the Orioles' up-the-middle defense should not be a problem if everyone can stay on the field.

Flanagan also points to the solid defensive skills of right fielder Nick Markakis and third baseman Melvin Mora and, quite correctly, concludes that there are no major soft spots at those positions.

Clearly, the two potential trouble spots are left field and first base, where manager Sam Perlozzo could face a daily tug-of-war in his desire to field the most productive offensive lineup and the most dependable defensive alignment, but this is the time of year when the optimists generally carry the day.

"I think what we were able to do by adding Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff - guys who play multiple positions - was to give Sam a lot more flexibility in-game," Flanagan said. "There may be scenarios where Huff comes in to play first base late in the game and Payton goes to left field. It's just a matter of finding the right mix."

That's one way to look at it. The other way is a little less upbeat. There are more fingers on my two hands than games that Huff has ever started in left field, which makes the coming exhibition season pretty important. The Orioles also have to get Jay Gibbons back up to speed at first base to maximize Perlozzo's defensive options.

Lest you interpret that to mean there are only two areas of concern, opinions inside and outside the organization vary widely. The most negative school of thought has the Orioles' defense featuring only two "plus" defensive players - Hernandez and Patterson.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of an airtight defense at a time when the Orioles are trying to bring along three very good young starting pitchers, but some trade-offs will have to be made to keep enough run-production potential in the middle of the lineup.

Everybody likes to wax nostalgic about the Oriole Way, but there was a decided shift in the traditional balance between offense and defense in the late 1980s, which has been attributed to a variety of factors ranging from an industry-wide shortage of quality pitching to the big anabolic elephant in the middle of the room.

"I think the importance of a single out declined in the 1990s," Flanagan said. "That's something we're trying to concentrate on in this camp. The game goes in cycles. There was the great pitching in the 1960s and '70s with all the complete games and all that. I think we got away from that. But I think there's still very few clubs that do not play defense who have won the whole thing. It's still true that a run saved is a run scored."

That philosophy is being re-emphasized this spring, with an increase in the time spent on pitching drills and fielding practice. Perlozzo also has the hitters working harder on what coaches like to call "the little things" - bunting and situational hitting.

Makes perfect sense. This isn't a team with overwhelming talent in any corner of the clubhouse, so the key to being truly competitive will be squeezing the most out of every player on the roster.

The pitching should be better. The lineup should be more productive. Which leaves one critically important variable.

The devil will be in the defense.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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

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