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What a difference a year makes

One year ago, the Orioles were in last place in the American League East with a dismal record of 29–38. Then-pitching coach Mark Wiley was about to be fired because the club's pitching staff was an immense disappointment, having given up a league-high 5.88 runs per game. Although most of the pitching troubles could be traced to a young, injury-riddled rotation weighed down by walks and anti-ace Sidney Ponson's bloated performance, the bullpen was also shaky. Notably, veteran reliever Mike DeJean, signed the previous offseason, was getting lit up nightly like the sky on the Fourth of July, compelling the team to make a desperate, roundly criticized trade for journeyman Jason Grimsley. Behind the pitchers, Baltimore's defense was doing its best imitation of Swiss cheese: Melvin Mora was having a tough time adjusting to the hot corner, and the team's defensive efficiency ranked near the bottom of the league.

There were issues with the bats as well. The Birds' lineup was the league's worst against left-handed pitching, and their outfield had been decimated by a combination of injuries and poor performance. The club was in the unenviable position of trying to find playing time for two young second basemen, meaning that Jerry Hairston Jr. was often playing out of position at DH or in the outfield. Rafael Palmeiro and Brian Roberts had been slumping after hot starts, so three players—Melvin Mora, Miguel Tejada, and Javy López—were essentially carrying the Orioles' offense. And López would soon complain that his knees were going to "explode" from catching too frequently.

Beyond the playing field, many observers doubted new manager Lee Mazzilli's capacity to lead the O's out of mediocrity, and attempts by the front office to dress the team's wounds with players from within and without were mostly falling flat. (A recent pickup, then-unknown David Newhan, had not yet made his mark on the club.) Meanwhile, the club's top pick in the June draft, pitcher Wade Townsend of Rice University, was holding out for a bigger signing bonus and would later cut off negotiations when he returned to school in September to finish his degree. Organizational sources later told the press that Townsend was actually not the first choice of Tony DeMacio's scouting staff, which had favored a shortstop, but that owner Peter Angelos had overruled the scouts and asked for a college pitcher. Throughout the 2004 season, Angelos was trying his darndest to keep the Montreal Expos from moving to Washington, arguing that a team next door would do irreparable harm to the Orioles' revenues.

365 little days

Today, the Orioles sit atop the AL East with a solid 42–29 record. Under the aegis of pitching coach Ray Miller, the Orioles' young arms have shown tangible signs of maturation: Erik Bedard was pitching at an All-Star level before being sidelined by a knee injury; Daniel Cabrera has made strides evident more in his vastly improved K/BB ratio than in his ERA or won-lost record; Bruce Chen has been remarkably consistent given his up-and-down history; and Hayden Penn has entered the rotation in Bedard's stead and pitched respectably for a 20-year-old straight out of Double-A. Miller's success in grooming the young'uns has made Mazzilli's job easier, and Maz has appeared much more comfortable at the helm this year.

In relief, B.J. Ryan has been closing games like there's no tomorrow—for the other team's hitters, that is—and Jorge Julio has stepped up his game as well. Steves Kline and Reed, brought in to shore up the bullpen, have not been as steady as hoped, but neither of them has been epochally bad as DeJean was at the beginning of last year. In all, the staff has given up 4.46 runs per game, good enough to put them in the middle of the pack. And the gloves have given the pitchers some love. Mora's hands have been much more reliable this year, and Baltimore's defensive efficiency has risen to a notch above the league average.

The bats overall have been excellent. Baltimore's 5.20 R/G rank as the fourth-highest output in the league (although it bears noting that the club's park- and league-adjusted Equivalent Runs are the second most in the AL). In the season's biggest surprise, Brian Roberts has turned into a hitting star after Hairston was traded away last offseason. Javy López is on the disabled list, but Mora and Tejada have kept on plugging away at the plate. Jay Gibbons, now healed and moved to DH, has returned to the party with his power bat intact, and while the starting outfield of Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, and Sammy Sosa has suffered injuries and slumps, it has still outproduced last year's group. Encouragingly, left-handed pitchers are no longer lording it over the Orioles, as the team's .794 OPS off of lefties ranks a respectable fifth in the league.

The team's management has done a better job this year of securing depth players who can actually step in and produce. Chris Gómez has filled in around the infield and provided a capable right-handed bat off the bench. Sal Fasano has been valuable at catcher in López's absence, and his surprising pop has helped compensate for Gerónimo Gil's offensive struggles. The club also recently acquired Eli Marrero from the Royals as right-handed hitting outfield help, and he has responded so far both at the plate and in the field. More important, he didn't cost the team a 95-mph-throwing arm and a leg. Last year's third-round pick, Jeff Fiorentino, was rushed up from Single-A Frederick to fill Baltimore's void in center field and held his own initially but was eventually overmatched at the plate. He may have the talent to stick in the majors someday, but he needs more at-bats to develop his swing. On the pitching side, Penn and Chris Ray have shown poise in their big-league debuts, fortifying the pitching staff more sturdily than last year's callups did.

Another refreshing change from last year is that the Orioles' first-round pick in the amateur draft, high-school catcher Brandon Snyder, quickly signed a contract and is headed to their rookie-league affiliate in Bluefield, West Virginia. There were no reports of any draft-day disagreements between the owner and the new scouting regime led by Joe Jordan.

Last year's pick, Townsend, re-entered the draft having gained a diploma but having lost a year of negotiating leverage. He refused to sign a card permitting the Orioles to re-draft him this year, but that decision became inconsequential when he was drafted eighth overall by the sad-sack Tampa Bay Devil Rays and coerced into accepting a $1.5 million signing bonus, reportedly lower than the $1.85 million the Orioles offered him last year. Unfazed, he insisted that he ended up in "the place I want to be" and added some criticisms of the team that previously drafted him. It will be interesting to see his reaction when he pitches for the D-Rays against the Orioles, who as divisional rivals will be opposing the Rays 18–19 times a year.

Not all is hunky-dory in Birdland, of course. Rafael Palmeiro has remained a nonentity against left-handers, encouraging Mazzilli to bench him against southpaw starters and play Gómez at first base instead. Matos was injured (again) and missed about two months, during which no one really replaced his production in center. Sosa has been a disappointment offensively, although a foot injury interrupted his acclimation to American League pitching. Newhan, faced with irregular playing time, has come back to earth and then some. And the team's pitching has been altogether ordinary without Bedard. Furthermore, both of the Steves will need to step up their performance or one or both of them could be shipped out. So despite the Orioles' tremendous start, the team's path to the playoffs is anything but assured.

Our sometime is now

Finally, down the road are the Orioles' new neighbors, the Washington Nationals, who are truly baseball's most-changed team this year, having gone not only from worst to first in the standings but also from Montreal to the nation's capital. To this point, the relationship between the Orioles and the Nationals has been strictly business, as they haven't played any games against each other that count. Attendance figures show that both teams are drawing acceptably but not extraordinarily well at the gate. The Orioles allege that they have lost fans from the Washington area to the Nationals, and they're almost certainly right. But they can't really complain about the sweetheart of a broadcast deal they got from Major League Baseball as compensation for the Nationals' move. And baseball as a whole is healthier with a team in D.C. instead of in Montreal, where the franchise was the league's weakest link.

Unfortunately, the slow-moving Comcast-MASN dispute continues to linger like a dark cloud in the distance over both franchises. One immediate side effect of that litigation that enrages many Nats fans right now is the fact that their team's games are nowhere to be found on Comcast SportsNet. As a result, the only fans who can view the full slate of MASN-produced Nationals games are the minority that subscribe to DirecTV or one of a couple of smaller cable providers (Cox and RCN) that carry MASN and also receive WDCA, an over-the-air channel with limited reach that televises mostly weekend games. But this storm will likely pass without lasting damage to either club, and when the legal dispute is resolved the O's and Nats should be able to arrive at a détente. Whether their followers will be so conciliatory is another matter.

In truth, both teams' fans have a lot to be happy about right now. Their teams have beaten all expectations to ascend to first place in their respective divisions. No one thought the Nationals would contend this year; D.C. fans were supposed to be happy just to have a team. Most AL East watchers thought contention for the Orioles was more likely in 2006, not 2005. But incredibly, a Baltimore-Washington Parkway World Series in October is not out of the question. Not yet, anyway; the Red Sox and Yanks are gaining on the O's, and the Nationals' hold on first place has always been tenuous given their negative run differential. Probably this shared moment in the sun won't last, but sometimes the most unexpected and inexplicable things happen that make us shake our heads in wonder. And this is one of those times.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 23, 2005 3:11 PM.

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