The Orioles may have sold their soul for more offense by letting veteran glove-man Mike Bordick, fresh off a major league record for consecutive errorless games by a shortstop, walk away via free agency and replacing him with Deivi Cruz.
Cruz brings a more potent bat to the Orioles' offense, but his defensive skills pale in comparison with Bordick's. And with Cruz paired with third baseman Tony Batista, range on the left side of the Orioles' infield becomes a major concern.
Batista, he of the goofy stance and one-dimensional game, returns as the team's primary power source.
(Incidentally, for a cheap thrill on any game night, watch Batista after the first pitch of the first inning when the Orioles are in the field. His wacky, arm-spreading, sky-worshiping dance is priceless.)
Second baseman Jerry Hairston may finally be heeding his coaches' pleas to shorten his swing and avoid excessively flashy plays in the field. This could be a produce-or-else season for the Orioles' projected leadoff man.
Veteran Jeff Conine will see the majority of time at first base, with David Segui -- who probably will miss the first month of the season with a fractured thumb -- serving as the primary designated hitter. Segui, the Orioles' highest-paid player, has played in only 108 games the past two seasons since signing a four-year, $28 million deal.
Attempts to land free agent sluggers Hideki Matsui and Cliff Floyd were fruitless, so the Orioles will open the season with essentially the same outfield as last year -- with Marty Cordova in left, Gary Matthews Jr. in center and Jay Gibbons in right.
However, veteran B.J. Surhoff, who returned to the Orioles this winter after 21/2 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, will see plenty of action in left field and first base.
Cordova, your basic 20-homer, 120-strikeout, below-average-defensive corner outfielder, is one of those Syd Thrift-era signings the Orioles' new front-office regime wishes it could unload. But at $3.1 million this season and $3.5 million next, he is impossible to move.
Matthews has received a lot of hype for a 28-year-old who hit only seven homers in 109 games last season. It goes to show how starved the Orioles have been for productive position-player prospects. However, he has the potential for bigger things this season if he remains healthy in the No. 2 spot in the order.
Gibbons is one of the biggest reasons to be excited about the Orioles' future. Only 26, fully healthy again after more wrist surgery and with two full major league seasons behind him, he has 40-homer potential.
Perhaps the Orioles' biggest disappointment of the winter was seeing 10-time all-star Ivan Rodriguez spurn their offer of a three-year deal -- after two days of face-to-face negotiations with his agent -- and sign a one-year deal with the Florida Marlins.
That leaves the Orioles' catching situation in the shaky hands of Geronimo Gil and Brook Fordyce again.
Gil, the starter, had the Orioles believing he might be a cornerstone player when he had eight homers and a .264 batting average at the all-star break last season as a rookie. But he crashed to a .198 average in the second half -- the team believes he was out of shape and grew fatigued -- prompting the Orioles to look for an upgrade.
Fordyce is another Thrift-era acquisition the Orioles would love to unload but can't. Signed to a three-year, $7.75 million extension before the 2001 season, he has slipped to backup status and might have been released had the Orioles signed Rodriguez. But he may see more playing time this season as the Orioles attempt to keep Gil fresh.
After winding up last season with prospects such as John Stephens and Sean Douglass forced into action with sometimes disastrous results, the Orioles went out and added depth with the signings of veterans Omar Daal and Rick Helling.
Daal becomes the Orioles' first full-time lefty starter since Jimmy Key in 1998 and could provide a nice buffer in the slot between hard-throwing right-handers Rodrigo Lopez and Sidney Ponson.
Lopez, who emerged last spring out of the minor league free agent trash heap, earned the Opening Day start with a spectacular rookie season, in which he won 15 games on a terrible team and finished runner-up to Toronto third baseman Eric Hinske for American League rookie of the year honors. The Orioles would be happy if he repeated the performance, thrilled if he exceeds it.
Even if Ponson manages to survive the spring without being traded, the trade rumors will flow all the way to the July 31 trade deadline. A free agent after this season, he has tested the organization's patience with his failure to live up to his vast potential. Conventional wisdom says he won't blossom until he gets a change of scenery. That will probably happen, sooner or later.
Jason Johnson, Helling and Pat Hentgen dueled for most of the spring for the final two spots in the rotation, and the fact none separated himself from the pack indicates this may remain a fluid situation.
The unquestioned strength of the team, even though it can't be properly utilized when the Orioles go on one of their prolific losing stretches.
Case in point: Last season, fabulous phenom closer Jorge Julio posted 25 saves by mid-August -- then went the last six weeks of the season without a single save opportunity. How is that possible? Try a 4-32 closing mark, the worst in the past century of baseball history.
Julio, with his triple-digits fastball, nasty slider and improving change-up, returns to anchor a bullpen filled with proven arms. Veteran lefty Buddy Groom and right-hander Kerry Ligtenberg, an Atlanta Braves castaway, will be the primary set-up men, and both have closing experience in case Julio falters or -- as the Orioles hope -- he is overused.
A trio of young arms -- left-hander B.J. Ryan and right-handers Rick Bauer and Willis Roberts -- are expected to handle the sixth and seventh innings.
A flurry of offseason signings -- including Surhoff, John Valentin and Jeff Reboulet -- has bolstered what had become a glaring weakness for the Orioles.
Valentin and Reboulet were dueling all spring for the utility infield job, with Valentin possessing the bigger bat and Reboulet the better glove, but the injury to Segui might allow the Orioles to carry both of them, at least initially.
Surhoff was expected to be a fourth outfielder but has played himself into a platoon role in left field at the very least.
Melvin Mora returns as the super-utility man, capable of playing all three outfield positions, plus third base, shortstop and second base. The Orioles hope to limit him to two or three starts a week because, as last year proved, he tends to be exposed when he plays every day.
Still, Mora tends to draw a lot of interest from contending National League teams because of his versatility, and the Orioles may finally trade him this season.
The juiciest plotline of the early part of the seasons involves Mike Hargrove's job security.
Quite conspicuously, the Orioles failed to address Hargrove's situation during their extensive front-office turnover this winter, leaving him twisting in the final year of his contract.
Although new front-office heads Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have said the failure to address an extension for Hargrove was merely a result of focusing on more pressing priorities, some in the organization believe a rocky start could lead to a change in the manager's office.
Owner Peter Angelos has never fired a manager in midseason, and though it seems fair to give Hargrove a chance to see the team's rebuilding effort through, anything resembling last year's atrocious closing stretch may cost him his job.
Hargrove's entire coaching staff -- pitching coach Mark Wiley, hitting coach Terry Crowley, bench coach Sam Perlozzo, bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, first base coach Rick Dempsey and third base coach Tom Trebelhorn -- returns this season.
-- Dave Sheinin