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Bird Watching

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page D11

Starting Pitching

The Orioles made a bold move by breaking camp with rookie left-handers Erik Bedard and Matt Riley in their rotation, shifting Rodrigo Lopez to the bullpen. As a result, this rotation averages 26 years 8 months, and after ace Sidney Ponson, the quartet of left-hander Eric DuBose, right-hander Kurt Ainsworth, Riley and DuBose has made a combined 27 major league starts and earned a combined 10 major league wins. The Orioles toyed with the notion of acquiring a veteran starter -- feeling out Greg Maddux, for instance, in January, and they discussed various trade scenarios in February and March. But in the end, the team believed enough in these young starters -- and in prospects John Maine and Denny Bautista, who may be making contributions by July -- to stand pat. Still, in a division that includes at least six bona fide Cy Young candidates, the Orioles may regret not bolstering their rotation when they had a chance.

Bullpen

Here's a prediction: Someone besides Jorge Julio will be closing for the Orioles by midseason, with Mike DeJean and John Parrish being the leading candidates. Julio's ERA climbed from 1.99 in 2002 to 4.38 last season, then he was shut down by his winter league team in Venezuela because of shoulder soreness. Although he professes to be healthy, there are signs the Orioles have questions about him, beginning with the signing this winter of DeJean, the erstwhile Milwaukee Brewers closer. Ostensibly, DeJean fills the right-handed set-up role that belonged to Kerry Ligtenberg last year, with B.J. Ryan -- who moved past veteran Buddy Groom in the pecking order last year -- handling the same duties from the left side. Parrish, Groom and Rick Bauer give the Orioles admirable depth throughout the pen, but bullpens are constructed from the back end forward, and Julio's performance in the season's early stages will be something to keep an eye on.

Miguel Tejada, right, congratulates Melvin Mora on his home run during a spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Evan Vucci - AP)

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Even though the master plan is more geared toward the future, the Orioles' time could be now.
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Infield

Amazingly, the Orioles will field an entirely different infield on Opening Night than the one they fielded a year ago. The upgrade is staggering:

Javy Lopez at catcher (instead of Geronimo Gil), Rafael Palmeiro at first (instead of Jeff Conine), Miguel Tejada at shortstop (instead of Deivi Cruz). In case you're scoring at home, that's a four-time all-star, a future Hall of Famer and a former AL MVP -- all added this winter via free agency. In addition, utility stud Melvin Mora takes over third base from Tony Batista, providing an upgrade in range and plate patience (though a downgrade in quirkiness). Second base will be manned by Brian Roberts for the time being, although the expected return of incumbent Jerry Hairston (broken finger) a couple of weeks into the season will revive the debate of which second baseman the Orioles will keep and which they will trade. Enjoy Tejada, fans. He's going to put on a show.

Outfield

A year ago, Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos were minor leaguers wondering if they were running out of chances to stick in the majors. Now, they are considered two of the franchise's cornerstone young players -- both were deemed virtually untouchable by the Orioles during trade talks this spring. Bigbie and Matos, both of whom hit better than .300 and showed surprising power during their stints in the majors last season, will man left and center fields, respectively, with Jay Gibbons returning in right. Gibbons was the subject of frequent trade speculation this winter, but the Orioles rightly put a premium value on a hitter with 35-homer potential. Matos plays Gold Glove-quality defense, Bigbie is above average, while Gibbons has made himself into a competent fielder.

Bench

New manager Lee Mazzilli handpicked veteran utility man Mark McLemore this winter, but McLemore's knee injury halfway through camp threw the bench situation into disarray; the team essentially needed two players to replace McLemore, who plays six positions. Veteran B.J. Surhoff will return to his fourth-outfielder job, and power prospect Jack Cust apparently will stick in the majors as another designated hitter-pinch hitter option. When this story went to press, the team had yet to decide whether to keep infielder Jose Bautista, a Rule 5 draftee from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Likewise, the utility infielder job remained up for grabs (at least until McLemore's expected return in May). The backup catcher competition, meantime, was won by Keith Osik.

Manager

Mazzilli remained something of an enigma throughout camp, with his insights into the team often either severely muted or impossible to decipher.

He may model himself after mentor Joe Torre, but he served only as Torre's first base coach for four years, as opposed to sitting next to him as bench coach -- leaving open the question of how he will perform in pressurized late-inning strategy contests. The players love him because he takes time to seek their opinions and read their mental states, and several of them will have a permanent green light on the bases. Any manager, including Mike Hargrove, would be set up for a successful season at the Orioles' helm, given the remarkable offseason makeover of the roster. But the hiring of Mazzilli was a bold, outside-the-box move by this front office, and fans will want to see whatever it was about Mazzilli that blew the selection committee away.

Coaches

The situation was inherently explosive: The Orioles forced Hargrove's entire 2003 coaching staff upon Mazzilli, including two men -- bench coach Sam Perlozzo and first base coach Rick Dempsey -- who interviewed for the job and were smarting over not getting it. However, signs of unrest within the coaching staff this spring were nonexistent. It helps somewhat that Perlozzo, considered one of the leading contenders at the start of the search process, and Mazzilli are old friends. Perlozzo, who has worked under Lou Piniella and Davey Johnson, among others, will be a central figure as bench coach, guiding the inexperienced Mazzilli through game situations. The rest of the coaching staff brings solid credentials -- hitting coach Terry Crowley, pitching coach Mark Wiley, third base coach Tom Trebelhorn and bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks.


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