- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. They lost their staff ace of 10 years to a hated division rival. They were spurned by nearly every free agent they went after this offseason. Their only proven power threat may have his career cut short by injury.
And they've been vilified by local and national media outlets all winter for the transformation of this once-proud baseball franchise into something of an afterthought in the American League East.
Yet a simple, four-word phrase can push aside all the uncertainty and make a believer out of the most cynical of fans.
Pitchers and catchers report.
When 30 or so members of the Baltimore Orioles arrive this morning at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for the start of spring training, spirits will be high, controversy will be disregarded and talk will be of a winning season.
Such is the charm of spring training, when every team in the league thinks this could be the season it all comes together.
That said, the Orioles coming off a third-straight losing season for the first time in more than a decade open camp today with far more questions than answers. Though the games won't count in the standings, the events of the next six weeks should offer the organization and its fans a sign of things to come.
Hence, six things to watch for this spring:
The health of Albert Belle and Cal Ripken.
Entering his 20th spring training with the Orioles, Ripken says he is in his best shape in years despite back surgery 18 months ago. If the 40-year-old third baseman makes it through camp with no problems, he may just back up his promise of playing in 120 games this season, which many have predicted will be his last.
The situation is much cloudier for Belle, who missed much of September because of a degenerative right hip. The key date for the 34-year-old slugger is Feb. 20, when position players undergo team physicals. If Belle passes, he will be set to resume play either in right field or at designated hitter. If he fails, he will not be allowed to participate, the Orioles will not be responsible for his $13 million salary and the veteran might be forced to consider early retirement.
The starting rotation.
The top three spots are set. Former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen was signed over the winter to compensate for Mike Mussina's departure to New York. Right-handers Jose Mercedes, who led the staff with 14 wins last year, and Sidney Ponson, who avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal yesterday, will back up Hentgen.
The other two spots, though, are up for grabs, with manager Mike Hargrove and new pitching coach Mark Wiley looking at a variety of options. Left-hander Chuck McElroy, a lifelong reliever, made two September starts last year and won both games. The move from the bullpen could become permanent. Righty Jason Johnson, 27, has looked great in Class AAA but went 1-10 with a 7.02 ERA in 25 games with the Orioles last season.
A host of prospects also will be thrown into the mix, with 23-year-old left-hander John Parrish, 22-year-old right-hander Luis Rivera and 24-year-old righty Jay Spurgeon leading the pack.
Veteran Scott Erickson, plagued by elbow injuries, won't be ready until at least August, if then.
Ryan Kohlmeier's progression as closer.
Perhaps the most unrecognizable closer in the game, the young Kohlmeier surprised everyone by saving 13 of 14 games down the stretch last season. Called up from Rochester on July 28, the 23-year-old was thrust into the closing role the next day following Mike Timlin's trade to St. Louis. He did not allow an earned run in his first 10 appearances and finished with a 2.39 ERA.
The closer's role is Kohlmeier's to lose going into the spring, with Mike Trombley and Alan Mills around as insurance.
Possible trades.
It's no secret the Orioles have a few high-priced veterans and not enough roster spots to keep everyone happy. The question then becomes whether vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift can swing a deal this spring.
The candidates most likely to be shopped around are Delino DeShields, coming off a season in which he proved he can play the outfield on a regular basis, and Jeff Conine, who could have some value as a backup corner infielder and outfielder.
Can the "Kids" play?
The Orioles have been running TV commercials all winter promoting their top young players. Several will get their chance to shine this year.
Jerry Hairston, 24, started the final 49 games of the season at second base and is being counted on to hold down the position for an entire season. His defensive prowess is known; now he must show he can hit consistently.
Chris Richard, who came over from the Cardinals in the Timlin trade and was impressive at first base, is expected to get 500 at-bats this year, splitting time between the outfield, first base and DH.
Team morale.
The Orioles just endured a horrific winter. Mussina bolted for the Big Apple, Thrift and majority owner Peter Angelos were unable to lure any big-name free agents to Camden Yards and the team took a beating in the media, capped by last week's Sports Illustrated article chronicling the downfall of the franchise under Angelos.
No one will be picking the team to finish better than fourth in the AL East, and some likely will drop the Orioles all the way to the cellar behind the hapless Devil Rays.
The negative vibes will not go unnoticed by the players and coaching staff. Whether they accept their expected fate or unite and set out to prove the naysayers wrong could ultimately determine the course of the 2001 season.

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