Youth Movement

Although the front office hopes to contend this season, its plan is to build around young pitching and make runs in 2008 and '09

Baseball 2007

April 01, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- He heard it so many times this offseason that Orioles vice president Jim Duquette wondered aloud how wealthy he would be if he were compensated $1 for each time it was said.

The typical conversation would start with a discussion of the Orioles' overhauled bullpen, move on to their more balanced lineup and then proceed to their increased pitching depth. Eventually, the person doing the talking - whether it was an executive from another club, a reporter or a season-ticket holder at Camden Yards - would conclude that the Orioles were an improved team. "But," they'd remind the club's top executives, "you still play in the American League East."

"That `but' comes in there a lot," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "It's there, it's real and it's frustrating. We feel that we have a team that in most divisions would be a potential postseason club. But in our division, with two or maybe three financial giants in front of us, we can't afford to make mistakes. Other teams in this division can."

When the Orioles start the 2007 season tomorrow in Minnesota, they'll attempt to disrupt one of the most predictable outcomes in baseball for nearly a decade now. The New York Yankees have reigned in the AL East every year after 1997, the season in which the Orioles went wire-to-wire and enjoyed their last winning campaign.

The Boston Red Sox have finished either tied for first or in second place in eight of the past nine years, and the Toronto Blue Jays have taken third seven times during that span. Then there are the Orioles, who aside from a third-place finish in 2004, have managed only to keep the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in last place.

"In this division, for whatever reason, it has gone historically, almost directly with payroll," Flanagan said. "You have to think about it as a level playing field, even though you can find plenty of reasons for it not to be."

After a 92-loss season, the Orioles spent about $79 million this winter hoping to narrow the gap between themselves and the division's hierarchy. More than $40 million went to revamping their bullpen, which was the second-worst unit in the league in 2006. An additional $29.5 million went to Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton, two hitters who say they relish the challenge of playing in the AL East.

Rough neighborhood

Several outsiders have lauded their improvements, though few prognosticators pick them to finish better than fourth place, fixating on the division they play in. Improvements aside, the Orioles' offense is still considered no better than the fourth-best in the division, and their rotation has as many question marks as that of their division rivals.

"I fluctuate a little on them," said one American League general manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I think they improved, but I don't think they improved commensurate with the money they spent. The one thing that is tough, they needed to do something about the bullpen and they were proactive and did something. The difficult part in that is there are very few relief pitchers that are consistent year after year, and there are wild fluctuations in performance."

Orioles players say the result of the front office's offseason work is a team better equipped to challenge the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays. Against those three teams last year, the Orioles went 18-38, including 3-15 against the Red Sox. A 13-6 record against the Devil Rays gave the Orioles a 31-44 record within the division.

"When we are talking about coming out and having to find at-bats for [Kevin] Millar, [Jay Gibbons] and [Jay] Payton, that's some pretty good depth," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "I think we're as close as we've been since I've been here, that's for sure. We just have to go out there and do the job."

The front office's plan is to build around the organization's young pitching and a nucleus of veteran position players. Flanagan estimated the organization is halfway to 75 percent through the plan and acknowledged that, though he feels the team is good enough to contend this year, he expects it to be in a better position the next two seasons.

By then, the hope is, Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera and Hayden Penn will join Erik Bedard and Chris Ray as reliable major league pitchers and several more prospects will be ready to make the jump from the minor leagues as reinforcements.

As for this season, almost everyone agrees that if the Orioles have any shot at contending, it will depend on the progress Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen make.

"I know Bedard and Cabrera, those two guys could be eventually close to what Minnesota had with Johan Santana and [Francisco] Liriano," said another American League GM who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "They are that good, or they have that type of talent, anyway. Depending on how this season starts, the whole organization could look completely different if those two take the right step forward."

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