Spring outings by O's pitchers have optimism in full bloom

March 11, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- I regret to inform you that the Orioles lost to the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday.

What a letdown. I was pretty sure they were never going to lose again, and I wasn't alone. I haven't seen Jim Hunter smile so much since I convinced him that premature gray hair is a sign of virility.

I'm only half-joking. This is the time of year for grand delusions. The Orioles came into yesterday's exhibition against the defending world champions with an eight-game unbeaten string, which is impressive even when you allow for the fact that two of those games ended in ties.

The young starting pitchers have been all but unhittable. Six members of the projected starting lineup came into the game batting at least .333.

If you can't dream in March, what's the point of showing up in April? But I've been getting a lot of funny looks lately - and a few accusatory e-mails - because I've actually raised my outlook for the franchise in 2007.

Don't you love it when I use that CNBC Power Lunch jargon? I was selling the Orioles a few weeks ago (and I wish I weren't the only one), but now I think they're undervalued.

It's all about the upside potential. This is not a star-studded team by any means, but the way Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen have performed in their early spring outings, you can't rule out dramatic improvement over 2006.

Of course, because the Orioles won only 70 games last year, what constitutes dramatic improvement might be relative. If they win 81 games, that would be a major step in the right direction, but it might not be good enough to get them out of fourth place in the tough American League East.

By most accounts, the Orioles would happily settle for a .500 finish, but that probably would not be enough to break through the glass ceiling of cynicism that has developed among the club's declining fan base. The Orioles need to break the 85-win barrier - no small task - and that will happen only if all three of the young starters pitch well all season.

It's a lot to ask, but not out of the question. Bedard is already one of the top left-handers in the game, and Loewen has scouts drooling from coast to coast. Cabrera remains an unknown quantity, but his physical tools are so imposing that it's easy to envision him having a breakthrough season.

Granted, Loewen is still very green, and it's just as easy to envision Cabrera being as inconsistent as he was last year. Pretty much everything has to fall into place for both of them if the Orioles are going to make the kind of move that will put a scare into the power teams in the division.

Probably isn't going to happen, but the three of them have combined to give up one run in six exhibition starts (0.60 ERA), which is enough to get you thinking about the possibilities.

There are other variables that argue against a major pitching renaissance, most notably the defensive sacrifices that manager Sam Perlozzo might have to make to field his most productive batting order. The best friend a young pitcher can have is an airtight defense, but the Orioles could have issues in left field and at first base.

Though the Orioles added veteran starters Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel and appear to have enough bullpen depth to provide the middle-inning support that was lacking in 2006, there still is plenty of room to question the overall quality of the pitching staff.

I'm sure I'll be doing plenty of that over the next few months. If I choose to delude myself for a few weeks this spring, what's it to you?

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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

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