Offense orders up even more runs

March 24, 2009|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -The Orioles' spring clubhouse has something of a split personality.

For the most part, the position players are on one side of the room and the pitchers are on the other. There are a couple of exceptions, but the physical division between the hitters and the pitchers stands out for all to see, especially those who are in the mood for metaphors.

It is purely coincidence, however, that such an obvious line of demarcation also exists between the outlooks for those two groups this season. The offense is coming off a productive 2008 season that featured strong performances from several of the hitters in the middle of the order. The pitching staff is trying to rebound from a frightening 2008 and has yet to take any kind of discernible shape this spring. If that is a source of frustration for the guys who currently hold the high ground, however, nobody is going to come right out and say it.

"You can't do that," first baseman Aubrey Huff said. "We are a team. I don't care how good the offense is or if the pitching is going bad, because there are going to be times when they [the pitchers] are going awesome and we can't score a run. Look at last year, when every time [Jeremy] Guthrie went out there we couldn't score for him."

Fair point, but we're not talking about the garden-variety ebb and flow of the various components of a ballclub. The Orioles could do more at the plate this year with enhanced team speed and the addition of versatile hitter Ty Wigginton, provided Huff and Melvin Mora can pick up where they left off last season. The starting rotation, however, remains an almost total mystery, with Guthrie just getting back from the World Baseball Classic, Koji Uehara recovering from a hamstring strain and the three other slots still unoccupied.

"We know what our offense is going to do, and we know what our defense is going to do," center fielder Adam Jones said, "but it's a team game. The primary focus is on winning, so we've got to get better as a team. We've got some people banged up, but hopefully, we'll get everybody healthy by the end of spring and see what happens."

Jones, in particular, is hoping he can make some things happen that will take pressure off the pitching staff. He came into training camp on a mission to turn himself into a more effective on-base and stolen base threat. He is still a developing young player, but his speed lagged behind the refinement of his other four tools during his first full season as an everyday player last year.

"I want to get on base as much as possible, score as many runs as possible in front of the middle of the lineup and steal more bases," he said. "If you look at what Brian [Roberts] and Huff and [Nick] Markakis did last year - they all had around 50 doubles - if I'm on first base, I'm in scoring position, because I'm going to score from first on every double."

No one believes the Orioles can hit their way out of this looming pitching nightmare, but - if nothing else - the team is better configured to deal with a possible pitching collapse than it was in 2008. The acquisition of shortstop Cesar Izturis and speedy outfielders Ryan Freel and Felix Pie, combined with a more aggressive Jones, should translate into more runs and a bigger margin of error for the rotation.

"I think the offense has the potential to be better than last year," Jones added. "The lineup will be a little different, but more speed generally equals more runs. You know what Roberts, Huff, Mora, Markakis and Wigginton can do. You know what their track records are."

The increase in overall team speed also should translate into some extra outs on defense. The projected starting outfield of Markakis, Jones and Pie figures to cover as much ground as any outfield alignment in either league, and Izturis is a definite upgrade at shortstop. The five guys who eventually settle into the starting rotation can figure on a lot of plays getting made behind them.

That probably won't be enough to compensate for the strange and unpredictable state of this team 13 days out from Opening Day, but it's something.

Listen to Peter Schmuck from spring training weeknights at six on WBAL (1090 AM).

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