Every year, some team surprises everyone. If you're the type who likes to sleuth out such things, you could do worse than to investigate the Baltimore Orioles. They have many of the same ingredients that turned the Tigers into last year's best story, starting with a projectable young pitching staff.
When Leo Mazzone left the Atlanta Braves to work with his best friend (and Baltimore Orioles manager) Sam Perlozzo, expectations were high that Mazzone’s magic would greatly improve the Orioles young staff. And it happened. It just happened way too late. Over the 2nd half of the season, Baltimore’s young rotation improved almost across the board, with four of their starters posting an ERA at least .89 lower than they did before the All-Star break. They’ll need to continue that if they’re going to challenge for a playoff spot in the very tough AL East.
As the middle of this rotation goes, so goes the Orioles season. Daniel Cabrera is a 6’ 7” Nuke Laloosh clone whose 100 mph heater scares the living daylights out of batters because he just has no idea where it’s going. Adam Loewen is a 22-year-old southpaw who similarly can strikeout the side or walk the bases loaded. And Jaret Wright’s upside can be found in 2004 (the last time he had Mazzone as a pitching coach) when he posted a 2.48 ERA.
If the middle of their rotation can carry a good chunk of the load, the lineup should be able to score enough to make things interesting. Like Detroit last year, this lineup doesn’t have many easy outs where you might expect them. At catcher, Ramon Hernandez hit 23 home runs last year. In center field, the Orioles will platoon Corey Patterson (who rakes right-handers and stole 45 bases last year) and Jay Payton (who will start the season on the DL). And at second base, Brian Roberts recovered from elbow surgery to have a great 2nd half of the year.
But the key to the offense is shortstop Miguel Tejada, who the Orioles signed as a free agent before the 2004 season. Remember how we all used to drool over the triumvirate of shortstops – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra? Well, Tejada has surpassed them all as the best shortstop in the game. He plays great defense, has a ton of natural clubhouse energy, and will hit around 30 homers and drive in 110 RBI.
Maybe more importantly for the home team, all the Orioles needed to do was give him a big check to anchor their lineup for this decade. While the Twins hem ‘n haw about how long-term contracts can go very wrong, the $38 million that Tejada will make over the next three years looks like an absolute bargain after the contracts that were given away this offseason. As the new ballpark introduces new sources of revenue, it’s worth remembering that smart bets (especially when they’re signed young, like Tejada or Vladamir Guerrero) can be made in the free agent market, just like they are in the farm system.