If 10 keys fit, Orioles can unlock success

March 28, 2007|By Rick Maese

Before last season, I asked a friend what was the deal with all the optimism surrounding the Orioles. "Around here," he said, "March is the only month worth having any optimism. We'll have the next six months to talk about how bad they are."

Less than a week away from Opening Day, the Orioles will start the season still bearing strong resemblance to a fourth-place ballclub, albeit a better fourth-place team than last season. But the entire division is better, and I can't help but think the Orioles are closer to catching the Tampa Bay Devil Rays below them than the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees above them.

Admittedly, this is a terrible mind-set for March. I probably need an injection of optimism. It doesn't hurt to recognize that contending in the American League East this year is not completely out of the realm of possibilities. But it requires the perfect storm of team chemistry and execution and health and a few career-year performances.

Breaking their string of losing seasons is still no likelihood, and challenging for a playoff spot requires a long line of stars -- 10, by my count -- to line up just right.

1. Repeat performances: Young guys like Chris Ray and Nick Markakis need to shine just as brightly this season. Miguel Tejada is steady and reliable, and expect Erik Bedard to improve on last year's win total. Behind the plate, Ramon Hernandez put up strong numbers a year ago, and, with a steady backup, he should be able to match them.

2. The promise: Tejada's continued contentment is vital to the team's success, and it appears he wants to improve on it. He seemed to acknowledge some problems in the past by promising to put in more time, show up earlier for games and maximize his effort. It's about time. Your best player should set a better example than Tejada has, and he needs to follow through on his promise.

3. Starting right: The starting staff has just one sure thing, which is an uncomfortable way to begin the season. Adam Loewen should win 11-13 games, and the 3-4-5 starters need to match the win total of the top two. Stepping into the American League, it's not fair to expect Steve Trachsel to match his numbers from a season ago, but maybe -- just maybe -- Jaret Wright's reunion with pitching coach Leo Mazzone will create some noise.

4. The eyes have it: One of the most important offseason moves could have come four days after last season ended, when Daniel Cabrera sat in a doctor's chair and underwent corrective eye surgery. This season is the last that we'll talk about his potential. He needs to be scary good -- not just scary. His arm might fire missiles to the plate, but too often he has the precision of an 18th-century musket.

5. Shiny, happy people: The clubhouse attitude could hinge on how Jay Gibbons and Kevin Millar accept their respective roles with the team. Understandably, neither wants to sit on the bench, but they can't allow playing-time discord to form a dark cloud. Gibbons and Millar are well-liked and respected, which is wonderful during the good times and dangerous during the bad.

6. Gold-plated bullpen: The best relievers money can buy need to pitch like it. Last season, the Orioles blew 21 saves and need to cut that number in half. I'm not sure fourth-place teams should focus their offseason efforts solely on the relievers, but at least the front office attacked it with gusto. Shoring up the bullpen should earn them some wins, but, alone, it's not enough to bring the team to .500.

7. Offensive pop: Last season's horrid pitching made it difficult at times to focus on how unproductive the Orioles were at the plate. First base and left field were among the least-productive spots every day. Newcomers Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton -- and a healthy Gibbons as designated hitter -- need to carry their weight.

8. Which side of the slope?: Melvin Mora needs to prove that last season was a fluke. The Orioles handed him the big contract extension, and it's time to earn it. It's difficult to think Brian Roberts' power will ever resemble 2005's, and Huff's numbers have declined each of the past four seasons.

9. Play it again, Sam, but better: This spring Sam Perlozzo is already showing signs that he's growing into his managerial role. He needs to do a better job of handling the lineup and maintaining clubhouse morale. Fortunately, he had more say in the composition of his coaching staff this year, and new additions Juan Samuel and Sam Mejias should better connect with players. And Mazzone needs to earn his keep. His contributions will be judged by the success of Loewen, Cabrera, Wright and Ray.

10. Intangibly speaking: Orioles fans should send some good energy to Gibbons, Roberts, Wright, Hernandez and Payton that they can remain healthy for the entire season. And at the same time, they need to send some bad energy to the division foes. The Yankees and Red Sox begin the year with question marks of their own -- just not nearly as many.

We'll know soon enough how everything plays out. Right now, all I really feel comfortable saying about this year's team is that Tejada will play each game, the Orioles will have a reliable arm on the hill every fifth day and the relievers are all driving nicer cars than a season ago. Other than that, the Orioles' success depends on too many things that need to go just right. For a few more days, it probably doesn't hurt to assume they all will.

The stars of the offseason didn't exactly line up to join the Orioles. Now it's up to the stars of the night sky to line up and do their part. As March passes, we're faced with the reality that ending a nine-season losing streak and climbing just one spot in the standings is a steep uphill battle.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at www.baltimoresun.com/maesespace

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