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Are The O's Ready to See .500?

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For eight miserable years now, the Orioles have taken Baltimore, Maryland on a Final Destination 3-like roller coaster ride. After some great success in the mid -1990s, including two postseason playoff trips, the Orioles tumbled from grace on the heels of aging players, poor ownership, and bad decision making. In 2003, the Orioles pledged some changes, this time going with a young roster and Lee Mazzilli, stolen from the New York Yankees. The 2005 season even looked promising, with the Orioles actually capturing first place for longer than the first game of the season. But, things fell apart again, as Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Lee Mazzilli each went belly up in the baseball world. In addition, general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan awaited a potential axe, swinging from owner Peter Angelos' hand as their contracts expired.

Realizing another need for complete change, the Orioles have set their sights on it again this season. They began by cleaning house with Sosa and Palmeiro. Then, they gave Mike Flanagan sole ownership of baseball operations, and even snared young upshoot Jim Duquette to assist him. Sam Perlozzo, longtime second in command of the Orioles, finally got his chance to be the skipper. In the beginning of the offseason, it felt really exciting to be an Orioles fan. Even owner Peter Angelos promised changes, saying "We are coming back strong next year. I know you have heard that tune before, but this time it will literally come true."

Then, the Orioles of new became the Orioles of old again. The Orioles watched star closer B.J. Ryan bolt to division rivals Toronto Blue Jays for the biggest contract given to reliever in history. Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko, easily the best first baseman available in free agency, stayed with the Chicago White Sox for the same amount of money. The Orioles were also cursed with an overpaying starter market, where sub .500 pitchers like A.J. Burnett commanded 5 year deals, for over 10 million per year. The only thoughts of comfort for the Orioles were the signing of defensive jewel Ramon Hernandez and the hiring of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who will instantly upgrade our pitching staff with calming influence, and the rebuilt minor league system, containing several rising stars like Nick Markakis, Adam Loewen, Hayden Penn, and Chris Ray.

The Orioles did resolve some of their issues in the offseason by obtaining Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar, both first baseman and outfielders and both who will instantly help to repair a strained clubhouse mentality. The Orioles also obtained Corey Patterson from the Cubs. Patterson was traded because he hasn't met the Cubs' expectations, but he was obtained by trading two relativley unknown minor leaguers, so he is a low risk, high reward option in center field. The Orioles wanted to find a closer to allow Chris Ray time to develop, but chose to give him a chance rather than sign a free agent closer who would've demanded a longer contract. The Orioles did obtain former closer LaTroy Hawkins as insurance for Ray. Finally, late into the offseason, the Orioles obtained New York Mets starter Kris Benson. Benson may not be the #1 starter the Orioles covet, but as the most experienced pitcher on their roster, he should proide the veteran presence the Orioles have desired in their starting rotation.

Now, as they prepare to head into the 2006 season, many sportswriters feel that the Orioles could finally be headed for their first winning season in eight years. It's hard to tell, because their success will ride on the shoulders of many unproven or uncertain players. The Orioles lacked power from Palmeiro and Sosa last year, but they need to fill their spots in the lineup with power hitters. Conine and Millar should help somewhat in that role, and Javy Lopez, should he accept the designated hitter role, will likely provide numbers closer to the spectacular season he had before being signed by the Orioles in 2003. The Orioles have also sought to improve defense and speed, and hope that Patterson will ultimately improve the outfield defense. Pitcher Kris Benson, though a PR handfull, should provide Hayden Penn another year in the minors to develop, and should be able to continue improving with pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Finally, and most importantly, the Orioles need to fix the clubhouse issues. After a very rocky year for the players, the seem to be finding players who focus on each other, and not themselves. They resigned Jay Gibbons, who is a great hitter and great teammate, to a long term deal and are quickly moving to resign Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts to extensions.

While the Orioles certainly will find it hard pressed to reach the playoffs against the "70 Million Dollar" Blue Jays, "Bunch of Idiots" Red Sox, and "Evil Empire" Yankees, the Orioles appear to have laid the groundwork for an eventual rise.

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