As he watched batting practice from the first base dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium on a humid March morning, executive vice president Jim Beattie was informed that the previous hitting group--which had included shortstop Miguel Tejada, rightfielder Sammy Sosa and designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles' presumptive 3-4-5 hitters--had just finished putting on a clinic, peppering the park's aluminum bleachers with a dozen or so home runs. "I think," Beattie said with a chuckle, "that our budget for baseballs has been blown up this spring."
Sosa, acquired from the Cubs in February for second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers, adds to Baltimore's embarrassment of offensive riches--last season the Orioles were third in the American League in batting (.281) and fourth in on-base percentage (.345)--and along with Palmeiro forms the first pair of teammates in history with 500 home runs each. But Baltimore did nothing to redress the dreadful starting pitching that has kept it out of the postseason since 1997.
"We added a bigger bat than we thought we could," Beattie says, "but we would have liked to have added a starting pitcher. We thought, based on the last couple of years, that the market would be in an area that made sense for us financially. But once it got [out of our price range], we kind of backed off."
The Orioles had a trade arranged for A's righthander Tim Hudson but pulled out because they were unsure about their ability to re-sign him long-term, and they missed on free-agent righthander Carl Pavano. Like many mid-market organizations (the Orioles' payroll is expected to be about $60 million this season) Baltimore found that it was priced out of the market faster than anticipated, which means a rotation that ranked 10th in the league in ERA (5.05), 13th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.49 to 1) and last in walks plus hits per inning pitched (1.53) will remain virtually unchanged.
In Sosa, their consolation prize, the Orioles have an enigmatic player. Despite three straight seasons of statistical decline (his batting average, home runs and RBIs have dropped each year), Sosa remains one of the game's top draws, an electric personality aching for an opportunity to reestablish his offensive credentials and to debunk the perception that he's a bad teammate. As a condition of the February trade Sosa agreed to a buyout of his '06 contract, making him a free agent at season's end. Historically Sosa has always appeared more motivated when he has something to prove. So far, returns have been positive.
"Everybody needs a fresh start, and that's what he's looking forward to," says second baseman Brian Roberts. "Whatever I heard in the media doesn't mean anything to me, and that's how 99 percent of us feel. The impression he's made, I don't see how you could think he'd do anything wrong."
Effervescent in the clubhouse and already bonding with third baseman Melvin Mora and Tejada--to whom he deferred upon joining the club, saying it was Tejada's team--Sosa has made an effort to appear positive, even jocose. "Do you think I'll make the team?" he often asked reporters during the spring. Approached by Beattie in the winter for his opinion of Sosa, Tejada, a fellow Dominican, recommended him enthusiastically.
Baltimore believes the drop-off from Boston and New York's pitching to its own can be made up by improvement from within, mainly from 26-year-old lefthander Erik Bedard, who threw 1371/3 innings last year in his first full season since Tommy John surgery in '02. Bedard also had 121 strikeouts, the most among rookies. "I think he made big strides last year," says manager Lee Mazzilli. "I see a big difference in his confidence and maturity." Much of Bedard's progress depends on his mastery of a circle change, which he's worked on all spring, to complement his plus fastball and curve.
Camden Yards favors righthanded power hitters, and Sosa seems a good bet to rebound, but barring a major forward leap by Bedard or 23-year-old righthander Daniel Cabrera, the Orioles' ball budget will be busted as much by opposing hitters as by their own. --D.G.H.