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O's are better ... just like the rest of the AL East

March 28, 2004|by MARK KELLER

I've come to like the Baltimore Orioles a bit over the last 15 years or so. I still wouldn't classify them as my favorite baseball team (I've been a Cincinnati Reds fan since the days of the Big Red Machine - hey, I got on the bandwagon as a kid, but I've stayed there), but I do pull for the O's more than I do most teams.

So I can understand the excitement that fans are feeling with the 2004 season just a week away. The O's are drawing more respect from around the league than they have gotten since the mid-1990s, and rightfully so.

The Orioles finally had some flexibility with their payroll this off-season, and they made the most of it, signing Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro and bringing back Sidney Ponson after a brief stint in San Francisco.

Baltimore is no longer the co-laughingstock (along with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) of the American League East. The Orioles have, for the first time in years, a good mixture of strong veterans and promising youth that will carry them through more than the current season.

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The problem is, of course, that the Orioles play in the AL East with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who went on spending sprees that made the Orioles' off-season look like a trip to the dollar store.

While the Orioles made marked improvement this winter, so did every other team in the division, which leads one to believe that the AL East clubs could finish in the same order as they have the last six years: Yankees, Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Orioles and Devil Rays.

I'm not sure the Orioles upgraded their pitching enough to move beyond the Blue Jays into third in the division. When a team is fretting the loss of Omar Daal from its rotation - which the Orioles are doing now - it's tough to have a good feeling about the state of that staff.

The Orioles have the potential to hit a lot, but they'll have to face the tough pitching staffs of New York and Boston - and even Toronto - 19 times each this season. That's a difficult position to be in.

I actually think the finish will be different in the AL East this season. Despite the Yankees' addition of Alex Rodriguez, I think the Red Sox improved themselves more by acquiring Curt Schilling.

Putting Schilling in a rotation with Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield will lift Boston over the Yankees in the race for the AL East crown.

If the Orioles can get the same type of season this year from Ponson that they got last year, if Rodrigo Lopez pitches more like he did in 2002 and if a young pitcher, like Matt Riley, steps up and fills a spot in the rotation with 10 wins, Baltimore could move past Toronto for third.

The Blue Jays will need another outstanding year from Cy Young winner Roy Halladay if they are to stay in front of the O's, and newcomer Miguel Batista will be counted on to be more consistent as a starter than he has been the last two years in Arizona.

The Devil Rays don't have the money to add big names like the others in the AL East did, but they made significant upgrades at several positions and will, if nothing else, be more competitive than they have ever been before.

Prediction: 1. Red Sox; 2. Yankees; 3. Orioles; 4. Blue Jays; 5. Devil Rays.




Mark Keller is sports editor of The Herald-Mail. His column appears every Sunday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2332, or by e-mail at keller@herald-mail.com

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