Know Thy Enemy: The 2004 Baltimore Orioles

It wasn’t so long ago, 1997, that the Orioles won the division with 98 wins. Their strong suit was their pitching, and their bullpen. How ironic that today, it’s their weak suit. They have not finished above .500 since that 1997 season. What happened?
Bad contracts happened. This past year, the Orioles finally wiggled free of over $50 million in bad contracts to people that either were not playing, or went in the tank immediately after signing a major-bucks contract. The contract to Albert Belle finally ran out. After this season, about $20 more million of bad contracts will be freed up.
Are the Orioles set to fly high again? The hitting is certainly a nice way to thump out hits, but the pitching leaves much to be desired.
Batting
C – Javy Lopez/Geronimo Gil give the Orioles very solid catching. Gil is among one of the best defensive catchers, and reminds many of Doug Mirabelli. Javy Lopez was a new man last year, playing for a contract and for pride. He seems to have continued that through this year, hitting .323 in spring training with 17 RBI. Can he do as good as last year? All signs point to no, but Lopez ought to earn the money he will be making this year and next year. The third year may be a mistake, but a needed one, to make the Orioles players again.
1B – Rafael Palmiero returns for another go-around, having left in 1998 on bitter terms. He is brought back to add protection to Miguel Tejada and to tack on more home-runs to his career 528, having hit 38 last year in 154 games. Palmiero is remarkably versatile and has had only one abbreviated season since becoming a starter in 1987. That abbreviated season was back in 1994. Since Raffy has been known to hit them out in Camden Yards, he could quite possibly hit 40.
2B – Jerry Hairston/Brian Roberts/Mark McLemore have all had injuries set them back this spring training. When healthy, Hairston is a solid starter, giving you about a .260 average, albeit with a low on-base percentage. His fielding and legs have a lot going for him, however. Brian Roberts rose up last year, and is challenging Hairston for a job. He is another Jerry Hairston clone. Even though McLemore is out for 6-8 weeks, when he is healthy, he is a very dangerous super-utility guy and a great pickup for Baltimore.
SS – Miguel Tejada was signed to be “The One” for years to come. Now that Tejada has his big bucks contract, what will the Orioles get? The MVP of 2002, or the real Tejada? Career stats bear out to be that 2002 was sort of a fluke. That being said, Tejada is worth the money to Baltimore. It gives them a proven star, a thumper, a player that people can see as the face of the Orioles. In this lineup, he should flourish.
3B – Melvin Mora, a super utility player, will attempt to settle down at third base after a breakout season last year at age 31. While it is “wait and see” to see how Mora will hit, his calming presence in the clubhouse and his solidity make him a fair player – not great, but fair. A player one could easily envision on a World Series team.
LF – Larry Bigbie/Marty Cordova can be seen as a two-headed monster, but only if Cordova regains the stroke that made him a money player in 2001. Bigbie came back from injury last year to impress the Orioles and enters as the starter. Cordova can easily take the spot away from him with good play, however. Bigbie will need to prove that last year was no fluke – that he can hit .300.
CF – Luis Matos/Tim Raines shore up center field for the Orioles. Matos is the incumbent starter, and like many other O’s, burst on the scene last year, hitting over .300. Backing up is speed phenom Tim Raines, who has yet to show that he is deserving of a major league spot.
DH – BJ Surhoff/David Segui/Jack Cust are all injury prone, all thumpers, and yet only one that has potential, who has not tapped it yet. Clearly, Cust deserves the shot because of his promising age, but he will most likely either platoon with Segui or Surhoff. Where does that leave the other person? Surhoff is the risky one, for he can’t really hit for power anymore. Segui, other than being injured quite a bit, has not slowed down in terms of hitting homeruns. Segui is the best bargaining chip and could be dealt for pitching. Any team that acquires Segui would get an immediate boost, but he’s only really a DH now.
Pitching
SP – Sidney Ponson/Rodrigo Lopez/Kurt Ainsworth/Eric Dubose/Matt Riley all compose Baltimore’s rotation, which could be a sleeping giant in the making. Ponson is a solid pitcher – perhaps not a number one, but certainly a number two. Lopez is the question of the group, and could be the factor in Baltimore’s fortunes. Ainsworth is a major sleeper and could emerge as a powerful number 2 or number 1 by the end of the season. Dubose, even though he is up there in age for a person just breaking in, has shown promise. Riley will have no trouble beating out Omar Daal for a rotation spot and should provide solid innings.
RP – Jorge Julio/Mike DeJean/BJ Ryan/Buddy Groom/and change are the question marks of the Orioles, save for Julio, who is one of the best closers in the AL. Can DeJean post a sub 4.00 ERA? Who knows, but he’s a middle reliever at best, not a set up reliever as he is currently being pegged at. BJ Ryan and Buddy Groom are up-and-down lefties who both must have up seasons at the same time to solidify the bullpen. The number five spot will be a revolving door all year. If David Segui can be traded, a relief pitcher should be their target.
Addition: OF Jay Gibbons is the star in the making of the Orioles. His career statistics fall directly in line with that of another star in the making, Tampa Bay’s very own Aubrey Huff. Gibbons will be an MVP candidate, along with Huff, for years to come. Do not discount Gibbons at all. He will make you hurt. He is the one person in the lineup I truly fear.
When It’s All Said And Done…
Look for the Orioles to finish fourth…but not 15 games behind 3rd place, more like five. They could be the sleeper of the AL and even finish a strong third, or god forbid, second. If pitching is their primary target next year, and they make smart free agent signings, the Birds will be singing come October 2005.