Abandoning their usual off-season M.O. of falling for the biggest brand names in free agency (even if they're past their prime), the Orioles instead aggressively went after players who could fill actual needs. And this winter, as has been the case for the better part of a decade, they had more than a few of those.
When Baltimore was done spending, it had committed a reasonable $79 million to eight players who will give the Orioles a decent return on their investment -- even if, for the eighth time in the last nine years, the club doesn't escape the bottom half of the division. The front office fared so well, in fact, that its biggest critic, cranky shortstop Miguel Tejada, not only happily announced that he wanted to remain with the Orioles for the foreseeable future but also promised to show up for work on time from now on.
The club's baseball people must have finally been able to talk sense into meddling owner Peter Angelos, because there were no Javy Lopez- or Sammy Sosa-type signings. And the players appreciate the new approach. "We're all excited about what was done in the off-season and the moves that were made," second baseman Brian Roberts says. "You can go out and bring in the biggest names, and it might not do any good."
Baltimore enters this season with a more well-rounded roster -- or, in Tejada's case, a slimmed down one. He showed up in Fort Lauderdale this spring with far less body fat on his 5'9" frame and much improved range. "I'm happy to be with the Orioles," he says. That's a far cry from last summer, when Tejada, upset about the direction of the franchise, was nearly traded to the Angels for pitcher Ervin Santana and well-regarded minor league shortstop Erick Aybar, until Angelos nixed the deal. There were members of the Baltimore organization who privately blamed the pitching staff's 5.35 ERA (second-worst in the majors) in part on Tejada's diminishing range, which was particularly evident in the first half of '06.
The most telling stat, however, was the league-worst 216 home runs surrendered by Orioles pitchers. That explains the signings of free-agent righthanders Chad Bradford (one home run allowed in 62 innings with the Mets last year) and Danys Baez (three homers in 59 2/3 innings with the Dodgers and Braves) to shore up a bullpen that was about as poor at holding a lead as any in the majors Lefthanded newcomer Jamie Walker is prone to the long ball, but will be invaluable against the lefty-leaning lineups of the Red Sox and the Yankees. The fourth reliever signed in the off-season, righty Scott Williamson, is injury-prone, but when he's healthy he has closer's stuff.
As enthusiastic as the Orioles are about their overhauled bullpen, they have even higher hopes for a young, homegrown front end of the rotation that showed signs of excellence toward the end of last season. Lefty Erik Bedard, 28, became the first Baltimore starter to win 15 games and have an ERA below 4.00 since Mike Mussina in 1999. Hulking Adam Loewen, who will turn 23 in April, struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings and beat the Yankees twice in an 11-day stretch in August. Flamethrowing Daniel Cabrera, 25, who's grown three inches and added 55 pounds since the end of the '05 season, has shown signs of harnessing his exceptional stuff, but the jury's still out.
The development of the young players -- which also includes pure-hitting, star-in-the-making outfielder Nick Markakis -- has been a big factor in the Orioles' suddenly sensible spending. If not for the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays the Baltimore front office would be able to more fully enjoy its fine winter work. Still, says vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette, "If you don't think this team is vastly different and vastly improved, you're crazy." -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 26, 2007