SPORTS:

The Birds Return

Season predictions--and a report card--for the 2006 Orioles.

by Darrell Carter
Do not be fooled into believing that this team will make it to the World Series, though they will be competitive.
The Baltimore Orioles embarsk upon a new season with grand illusions of winning the American league East. Not so fast, this reporter can hear the pundits saying: “The O’s will fight for last place with Tampa Bay.” The 2005 season opened with Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Sidney Ponson on the opening day roster. All three contributed to the downfall of the fourth-place Orioles, after the Orioles were 14 games over .500 on June 21. When several on and off the field problems erupted—including Congressional hearings on steroids, failed drug tests, driving while intoxicated, and tension in the clubhouse that translated into a great nose-drive in the standings.

There are great expectations from the 2006 Orioles, though no one at Baltimore Chronicle or other media outlets are predicting a first place or wild card finish. Still, it is important for the team to electrify the fans with solid play and good competition, while staying out of trouble with the law.

Let's take alook at the 2006 Baltimore Orioles:

COACHES:

Manager Sam Perlozzo went 23-32 after taking over August 4, 2005, when former manager Lee Mazzilli was fired. The Birds finish 74-88, 21 games behind the first place New York Yankees, and seven games ahead of the last place Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Leo Mazzone replaced pitching coach Ray Miller, due to health concerns. Mazzone served as pitching coach with the Atlanta Braves for 15.5 years, where his pitchers finished first or second in the National League in ERA in 12 of the last 14 seasons. Also, under Leo’s tutoring, he produced six Cy Young Award winners, and nine 20-game winners, and 10 pitchers were named to the All-Star team.

Rounding out the rest of the coaching staff are bench coach Lee Elia, first base Dave Cash, third base Tom Trebelhorn, hitting coach Terry Crowley, and Rick Dempsey in the bullpen. Dempsey replaced longtime Oriole favorite Elrod Hendricks, who passed away last winter.

Rating: B+

STARTING PITCHING:
Four of the five starting pitchers on last season's roster will return, with the addition of former Mets hurler Kris Benson. Leading the pack is Rodrigo Lopez and his team, with 15 wins in 2005. Lopez will be joined in the rotation by southpaws’ Bruce Chen, Erik Bedard, and young right-handed pitcher Daniel Cabrera. The talented quad all served in the inaugural World Baseball Classic this past March.

Rating: B-

RELIEF PITCHING:
Bullpen troubles will haunt the O’s, due to the loss of their closer, left-handed flame thrower B. J. Ryan, who signed with division rival Toronto. The torch will be handed to 24-year-old Chris Ray, who has pitched 40.2 innings in the Majors. Backing up Ray will be former San Francisco Giant set-up man Latroy Hawkins. Hawkins joined the O’s in a December ’05 trade, when disgruntled lefty Steve Kline was shipped to the bay area in exchange for Hawkins.

Joining Ray and Hawkins are left-handers Tim Brydak and Eric Dubose, along with right-hander Todd Williams. Also, during the month of April several relievers will continue to battle for roster spots, including rookies Sandy Rleal and Franklin Gracesqui.

Rating: C-

INFIELD:
The infield will be potent with power, and potential defensive weaknesses on the right side. New first baseman Javy Lopez, converted from catcher, has played only one game at first in 14 seasons. Brian Roberts will serve at second base depending on his health. He hit 11 home runs in the first two months of the 2005 season and hit with a .345 average during the first half of the season, where he made his first All-Star team. Chris Gomes will serve at second if Roberts cannot play, due to rehabbing. Gomez was adequate in Roberts absence, where he maintained a .279 batting average and committed one error in 18 games and 72 total chances.

All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada asked for a trade to motivate the front office to enter into the free agent market or trade for quality help. On the day after Tejada's request, the O’s signed All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez, although team officials denied that the two moves were related. All-Star third baseman Melvin Mora hit 27 homeruns and knocked in 88 runs, while lowering his average from the previous year by .57 points.

Grade: A-

OUTFIELD:
Leading the charge is Jay Gibbons in right field. He hit 26 homeruns and maintained an average of .277. The opening day left- and center-fielders may not be the following month or year-end starters. There are several candidates that may prove worthy, though not outstanding. For most of the year, Luis Matos will battle with newly acquired Corey Patterson for playing time in center, with David Newhan looking over their shoulders. Veterans Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar will platoon in right, with rookie Nick Markakis observing from the minors.

Grade: C+

CATCHER:
Catching became an issue in 2005 when Javy Lopez had a hand injury and went on the disabled list, then requested reduced time behind the plate. The front office signed former San Diego catcher Ramon Hernandez and anointed him as the starter. Although Lopez will start at first, he will serve as the primary backup catcher. The team's third catcher may include either veteran backup Geronimo Gil or rookie Eli Whiteside.

Grade: B+

TOP FIVE PLAYERS:
The Baltimore Orioles have retooled their minor league system with quality pitching and position players who will make an impact on the major league squad within the next few years.
  1. Left-Handed Pitcher: Adam Loewen--First Round 2002

  2. Outfield: Nick Markatis--First Round 2003

  3. Right-Handed Pitcher: Hayden Penn--Fifth Round 2002

  4. Catcher: Brandon Snyder, First Round 2005

  5. Outfield: Nolan Reimold, Second Round 2005
Grade: A+
TEAM PROSPECTS:
In 2006, Orioles fans should be excited with the style of aggressive ball playing manager Perlozzo will implement and the maturity of the starting pitching staff. Do not be fooled into believing that this team will make it to the World Series, though they will be competitive. This reporter predicts the New York Yankees will win the American League East, and that the Baltimore Orioles will finish third behind Boston.

Final Grade: B-


Darrell Carter, of West Baltimore, regularly writes sports commentary for the Chronicle.

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This story was published on April 3, 2006.