'Pen points way

With offense struggling to score, defense still iffy, O's improved bullpen gets highest marks of spring

Orioles Spring ratings

March 20, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Two weeks from the start of the season, the Orioles had an open date yesterday. Without a game to play, the club and its observers could analyze the Orioles' performance at spring training, something not measured by the team's 9-8-2 record.

If signs of progress aren't readily apparent in a balky offense, the starting rotation and bullpen clearly are improved, and the only remaining questions about the roster involve the last spots on the bench and in the bullpen.

Take away the 9-0 and 7-3 wins in split-squad games Saturday, and the Orioles' offense has been stagnant. It has totaled nine runs in seven losses since March 10. Both of the Orioles' ties ended 2-2. Rather than open the floodgates, they turn the faucet and get a few drips.

"The offense has been a little bit of a surprise in terms of its struggling," club vice president Jim Duquette said.

Better to focus on the pitching, which has produced a 3.42 ERA and showcased Opening Day starter Erik Bedard. And on the crisp workouts and favorable attitudes that shaped this year's camp.

But first, the lineup.

Right fielder Nick Markakis, projected to bat third, is hitting .400 and destroying the notion of a sophomore jinx. First baseman Aubrey Huff, expected to bat fifth and offer some protection for shortstop Miguel Tejada, is hitting .382 with seven RBIs - second on the team to Melvin Mora's eight. Catcher Ramon Hernandez is hitting .300. Outfielder Jay Payton is hitting .355 with six RBIs.

If these guys are in the fast lane, they're blowing past Jay Gibbons (.208), Corey Patterson (.161) and Kevin Millar (.059).

"The improvement in the lineup is directly related to where Jay Payton is hitting," said Buck Martinez, part of the Orioles' broadcast team on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and a former major league catcher and manager.

"He hit sixth for a postseason team in Oakland last year, and he's going to hit ninth in this lineup. And it just speaks to the depth with the additions of Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton that, offensively, this team can compete in the [American League] East."

Huff has the highest slugging percentage among regulars at .529. He was the marquee addition to the lineup, a player who didn't cost much, but could give the Orioles a huge return.

"That's probably 100 RBIs and 20 home runs," Tejada said.

Most of the attention this spring has fallen upon the young core of the starting rotation: Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen, who have allowed eight runs and struck out 38 in 36 innings. They're doing more than living up to the hype. They're exceeding it.

That's especially true of Bedard, who's 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA, three walks and 13 strikeouts in 14 innings. Once anointed the ace by default, he now looks the part.

"I think we're better because the young guys are getting older. They're learning. They're better," Tejada said.

Said Martinez: "I've seen a marked improvement in those three pitchers. I see a maturation that's kind of surprising. Now they're walking around like professional pitchers trying to get ready for a season, as opposed to young prospects trying to make a team. They work with a focus of getting better in side sessions.

"I watched Loewen throw on the side the other day and he looked like a Ron Guidry throwing. He hit his spots, changed speeds and got movement. And I think Daniel's confidence and improvement are dramatic. He's got the confidence to throw his changeup and use it effectively. You talk to hitters around the league, nobody wants to face Loewen, Bedard and Cabrera."

The younger guys have outperformed the veterans. Steve Trachsel did a better job of keeping the ball down in his last start, but he has an 8.18 ERA in four games and has allowed 22 hits in 11 innings. Jaret Wright, brought along more slowly because of his past shoulder problems, has a 4.50 ERA in six innings.

"We expect to see guys starting to get some outs as camp goes on," Duquette said. "A couple of the veterans are getting their work in, and I don't think it's an overall concern because they have a track record."

Take away one horrific day, and the four free-agent relievers - Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson - have allowed four runs and 13 hits in 22 innings. Bradford and Baez combined to surrender nine runs in one inning Friday.

Defensively, the Orioles should be improved with Payton getting most of the starts in left and Markakis staying in right. Tejada is in better shape and covering more ground. But Huff isn't going to win any Gold Gloves at first - he has struggled to field balls in the dirt in workouts - and Perlozzo scrapped plans to use Jay Gibbons there.

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