- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

The bar for success certainly is lower when a club posts nine straight losing seasons, as the Baltimore Orioles have.

Orioles officials and players believe they have perhaps their most talented team since 1998, the first losing season in the nine-year streak. But what does that mean? Battling the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for the American League East title? Or simply not being embarrassing?

For manager Sam Perlozzo, it means being “competitive.”

“We know we have work to do,” Perlozzo said. “We have better players, but we still have to get the job done on the field. We want to demand more things of each other, and we need to stay healthy. If we can do that, I think we can compete. I think we can make that jump.”

Making the leap from dismal — the Orioles were 70-92 last season — to competitive would put the franchise in position to then take the next step: going head-to-head with the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox.

The Orioles expect to have the cash to do so, thanks to the infusion of revenue they will get from their newly formed regional sports network, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. The network will broadcast both Orioles and Washington Nationals games starting this season.

“Now that we have [a regional sports network] and we can move forward with it … that is going get us on a more even plane with Boston and New York, and that was the purpose,” Orioles owner Peter Angelos told Press Box newspaper in Baltimore.

Whether the Orioles actually could flirt with the Red Sox and Yankees this year totally depends on their starting pitching.

If Erik Bedard can repeat last year’s success of a 15-11 record with a 3.76 ERA on a losing team; if young hurlers Daniel Cabrera (9-10, 4.74 ERA) and Adam Loewen (6-6, 5.37 ERA) can realize their potential; if a healthy Jaret Wright, obtained in an offseason trade with the Yankees, and innings-eater Steve Traschel perform well, the Orioles will have a solid rotation that represents a significant improvement over last season.

That would only make the Orioles’ pitching strength — the bullpen — stronger still. The Orioles committed $42 million to strengthen their bullpen, bringing in Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Scott Williamson and Chad Bradford to join young closer Chris Ray.

Perlozzo said he believes the bullpen woes of last year occurred in part because of the starting pitching.

“We suffered through some starters that just got us through five and we had to go to our pen early and often,” he said. “I don’t think many bullpens can survive that. Every team relies on starting pitching. If our starters went seven innings last year, our bullpen would have been a whole lot better. They bear the brunt every year from going deep into the game. That’s just the game.”

There also is the feeling that pitching coach Leo Mazzone is more at home now after leaving his longtime job in Atlanta and joining Perlozzo’s staff last season. “It’s like night and day,” Mazzone said. “You come in and you see some familiar faces. There’s no feeling-out process now.”

The pitching is stronger but still uncertain, but there is only confidence about the lineup the club can put on the field.

Aubrey Huff (21 home runs, 66 RBI in 131 games last season) and Jay Payton (.296 average, 78 runs scored in 142 games) join rising star Nick Markakis and Corey Patterson, who is coming off a career year (16 home runs, .276 average, 45 stolen bases). Together, they make a formidable presence in the outfield.

Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts are as good offensively as anyone in the league at their respective positions in the infield. And with Ramon Hernandez behind the plate, Kevin Millar at first base and Jay Gibbons as the designated hitter, there is not an easy out in the lineup.

“This is talent-wise a better team than any we have had before in the six years I’ve been here,” Gibbons said. “We have so much depth, and guys will be battling for at-bats. That is a good thing. In the past, we were probably bringing up guys who weren’t ready for the big leagues, playing every day. It is a welcome change for us, for sure.”

Perlozzo also likes the mix of young players with veterans.

“I think the chemistry of the ballclub looks good,” he said. “We have some veteran guys who are professional about the way they go about their business, and they are leading the young kids. That is what we were hoping would happen, our veteran guys take charge on the field and building up to something we want to see.”

Perlozzo, who has taken on a tougher, more intense style in line with the heightened expectations, believes he has the hitters to match the elite of the division.

“I feel we have the lineup to compete at a high level, if we are healthy,” he said. “We will finally have a couple of guys on the bench who are not happy because they are not in the lineup, and they are probably good enough to be in there, sometimes. We haven’t been able to say that for a while.”

What they also haven’t been able to say for a while is that the Baltimore Orioles had a winning season. Attendance at Camden Yards dropped to 2.2 million last year, so the notion of flirting with the Red Sox and Yankees is tantalizing.

But the bar, at this point, is set for just that, a winning season. The risk if the Orioles can’t pull it off? Drawing fewer than 2 million fans for the first time in Camden Yards history.

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