Hot and cold
The Orioles were a streaky bunch. They won five in a row in April but also had two seven-game losing skids in the first half. Their eight-game winning streak in August was their longest since 1999. Soon after, they dropped 12 consecutive games and then won six in a row.
The comforts of home seem to be lacking against two division rivals. The Orioles are a combined 22-53 against the Yankees and Red Sox at Camden Yards over the last four seasons, and only seven games below .500 against everyone else.
The Orioles broke several club offensive records in 2004. They were third in the American League with a .281 average, two points higher than their previous best in 1999. They also set records with 1,614 hits and 319 doubles.
It's no wonder the Orioles were looking to add another right-handed bat during the winter. They led the AL with a .293 average against right-handed pitchers last year but ranked next-to-last with a .253 average against lefties. They were 22-29 in games started by a lefthander, and are 68-114 against lefties since 2001.
Shortstop Miguel Tejada became the first Oriole to lead the majors in RBIs
(150) last season. He set a record for most RBIs by a player in his first year with a new team. Rogers Hornsby (149 RBIs with the Cubs in 1929) previously held the record.
After signing infielder Chris Gomez to a minor league contract at the winter meetings, the Orioles quickly lost him to the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. But they re-acquired him a few weeks later in a cash transaction, and the embarrassment faded.
It took seven years for the Orioles to escape fourth place in the American League East, but their chances of rising higher than third this season hinge more on the teams ahead of them. The Yankees and Red Sox, both more active in the free agent market this winter, will have to tumble because the Orioles again will be reliant on young, non-established starters to complement a lineup that shouldn’t have much trouble scoring runs with Sammy Sosa now in the fold. In any other division, they could challenge for a playoff berth, but the East is too unforgiving. Third place seems like a reasonable goal. Anything more is a reach.
Unwilling to overpay for free agents, the Orioles are prepared to go into 2005 with Sidney Ponson and Rodrigo Lopez as the anchors of a young staff. They combined to go 16–6 with a 3.79 ERA in the second half of the ’04 campaign. Daniel Cabrera moved up from Double-A Bowie to win 12 games and make a run at Rookie of the Year honors. Lefthanders Erik Bedard and Matt Riley drew substantial interest from other organizations at the winter meetings. The Orioles are counting on healthy returns from Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose, who began 2004 in the rotation but combined for only 21 appearances because of injuries.
Team officials must determine whether B.J. Ryan, arguably the top left-handed setup man in baseball last season, is ready to close. If he is, free agent acquisition Steve Kline will take over Ryan’s old job. Former closer Jorge Julio, the subject of much trade speculation after going 22-for-26 in save chances, could replace righthander Jason Grimsley in a setup role. Grimsley will be sidelined after undergoing Tommy John surgery on Oct. 12. The Orioles again are strongest from the left side, with John Parrish capable of serving many roles. Righthander Rick Bauer can pitch in long and middle relief, and make an occasional start if needed. The O’s signed former Rockie Steve Reed in late January. He had a 2.38 ERA on the road in 2004.
The Orioles got their money’s worth from shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was named the team’s most valuable player in the first year of a six-year, $72 million contract. Tejada led the club with 34 homers and 150 RBIs while playing every game, and his leadership was invaluable. Players gravitate to him, and he sets a marvelous example in the clubhouse. Second base now belongs to Brian Roberts, who replaced injured Jerry Hairston and set a team record with 50 doubles. As a leadoff hitter, Roberts needs to bunt more and take advantage of his speed and base-stealing ability.
The Orioles gambled by making prized utility player Melvin Mora the everyday third baseman, and he rewarded them with one of the best overall seasons in club history. His defense has steadily improved, enough that the team didn’t pursue a marquee free agent such as Adrian Beltre, and he established career highs with a .340 average, 27 homers and 104 RBIs. Rafael Palmeiro was resigned, but not as the everyday first baseman. Unable to lure Richie Sexson to Baltimore, the Orioles resigned Jay Gibbons, who can play first and right field. Catcher Javy Lopez will likely get some repetitions at first in spring training to see if he could play there on occasion.
The Orioles’ outfield looks a lot better with Sosa's bat in right field. Even if the former Cubs star doesn't hit 60 home runs again, a 30-to-40 homer season would suit the Orioles just fine. Former No. 1 draft pick Larry Bigbie can play anywhere, though most of his starts came in left. Luis Matos and Hairston were starters in center before injuries ended their seasons prematurely. They both underwent surgery — Matos for a fractured shin, Hairston for a fractured ankle — and the Orioles have important decisions to make on both of them. Matos is exceptional defensively, and Hairston showed a lot of potential despite never playing the outfield until last season. The club resigned B.J. Surhoff, who can play both corners. David Newhan appeared in 24 games in right and 19 in left after signing on June 18.
Signed as a free agent from Atlanta before last season, Lopez gave the Orioles more offense at the position than they’ve been accustomed to in recent years. But he also complained about a heavy workload, worrying that his knees and back were going to give out. The Orioles would like to sign a quality backup to start 50-60 games. Lopez could move to first base or serve as the designated hitter. Geronimo Gil, the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in 2003, didn’t join the team from Triple-A Ottawa until September and no longer seems to fit into their plans.
Palmeiro will serve mostly as the designated hitter after he failed to appear in at least 140 games at first base last season, which voided the option in his contract. The Orioles believe that he played better in September because of the added rest that came from being the DH, though Palmeiro disputed that theory. Besides a backup catcher, the bench probably will include Chris Gomez, who signed a minor league deal but is expected to replace Luis Lopez as the utility infielder. B.J. Surhoff and Newhan, both left-handed hitters, could be available in the late innings, depending on who’s starting.
The jury is still out on co-GMs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. They made a big splash after the 2003 season by signing free agents Tejada, Lopez, Palmeiro and Ponson, but they’ve drawn the ire of GMs, scouts and agents with their deliberate approach to negotiations. There are people outside the organization who view them as too indecisive, but Beattie and Flanagan won’t let other teams dictate how they do business. They refused to overspend for premium free agents this winter. Manager Lee Mazzilli was on the hot seat halfway through his first season, but the Orioles showed enough improvement to warrant his return in 2005. The team played hard for Mazzilli throughout the entire season.
The Orioles are trying to finish with a winning record for the first time since going wire-to-wire to win the AL East in 1997. The challenge comes from all those games against the Yankees and Red Sox, and a rotation that doesn’t match up with the elite teams — at least not on paper. The bench should be better with Gomez, and the bullpen has the potential to be a strength. Pitching coach Ray Miller turned the staff around after replacing Mark Wiley on June 26, and the younger hurlers continue to benefit from his presence. The Orioles finished with their best record (78–84) since 1999, and they shed some bad contracts after the season by allowing David Segui, Marty Cordova and Omar Daal to become free agents. There’s reason for hope, and with Sosa there should be some fireworks, but the playoffs remain a long shot.