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O's plan to ruffle some feathers



Special to ESPN.com

Feb. 29

No one has to remind Lee Mazzilli he's walked into the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, the best division in baseball that in his first year as manager. "I know it as well as anyone, I watched the Yankees play the Red Sox 26 times last season," says Mazzilli. "But this is a great time to be an Oriole."

Lee Mazzilli and Earl Weaver
Operating in Earl Weaver's shadow can't be easy for Lee Mazzilli, right.

No one is running around predicting 100 wins, but, remember, this is one of baseball's flagship franchises, one that went wire-to-wire in first place in 1997 and hasn't had a winning season since. Six consecutive losing seasons have eclipsed the former Baltimore record by two years.

Mazzilli comes in with the credential of a World Series ring and the Joe Torre School, and he comes in with energy. "All we want is the winning attitude, to play and compete hard, start winning and see what happens," says Mazzilli. "You never know when things get rolling. Is it tough to play 59 games with Boston, New York and Toronto? Sure, but it's up to us to make it tough on them."

Along with Mazzilli's hiring, Orioles owner Peter Angelos gave Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan the iron to sign Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez and Sidney Ponson. Three positional players who have considerable postseason experience. "It seemed like Christmas Day every time we signed one of those guys," says Jay Gibbons, who knocked in 100 runs unprotected. "It just recommitted to the Oriole tradition of winning."

"I know what it's like to play in Baltimore when the Orioles are winning," says Palmeiro. "The ballpark's filled every night, it's electric, it's one of the two or three best places in the game to play. They're back to wanting to recreate that magic. Lee is completely committed to it. It's really exciting."

"You look at what these players bring," says Mazzilli. "Tejada is an MVP. Raffy is a Hall of Famer, a guy who when his career is over will have 3,000 hits and 600 homers. Javy hit more homers in a season than any catcher in history."

Mazzilli knows that the O's already had some very good young players. Gibbons can mash. Larry Bigbie has grown into a potential cornerstone, hitting .323 with an .875 OPS in the second half, and teammate Brian Roberts predicts a 20-homer/20-steal season. Melvin Mora had a .921 OPS before getting hurt. Luis Matos hit .303 with an .811 OPS despite a 28/90 walk/strikeout ratio. "Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez drop right into the 3-4-5 spots in the order," says Beattie. "That allows the other young players to drop down lower, with less pressure. Gibbons was being pitched around. Bigbie might hit eighth. It should be a very good lineup."

Mora has to make the transition to third base, which he played one year in the minors. That is one question. The starting rotation is another issue.

Ponson is back, after going 14-6 for the O's, 3-6 in San Francisco. Rodrigo Lopez fell to 7-10, 5.47 after his 15-9, 3.57 debut in 2002. Kurt Ainsworth, acquired in the Ponson deal, is likely to start. And while Omar Daal is around and Eric DuBose pitched well in September, they are most excited about two other left-handers, Eric Bedard (their best prospect before Tommy John surgery) and Matt Riley, who is also off the same operation. Down the line, in the minors, they have some other big arms, like Denny Bautista, John Maine and Adam Loewen.

The fact that they could have two left-handed starters and three or four left-handers in the bullpen has not been lost on Mazzilli, who knows one needs lefties in Camden, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, and that Toronto's Ted Lilly could be the only other left-handed starter in the division.

"We're going to bring winning back to Baltimore, and we'll start this year," says Tejada, whose energy marvels teammates like Roberts and Jerry Hairston. In fact, when Mazzilli asked Tejada about taking days off, Miggy replied, "only in spring training. I want to play every inning of every game once the season starts." Yeah, and then go team up with David Ortiz to win another Caribbean World Series. "Hey," says Tejada, "there's nothing better than winning."

Illuminating Pedro conversation
The Orioles live in the Yankees-Red Sox world, where Pedro Martinez demonstrated his astounding intelligence by coming to spring training and playing the Yankee card. But he's right. If the Red Sox don't sign him, George Steinbrenner will, if for no other reason to spite his archenemy Larry Lucchino.

Johnny Damon
Damon shows his "Passion".

In a 90-minute interview with ESPN this week, Martinez finally revealed what happened when he got into the dugout after the seventh inning in Game 7 of the ALCS. Watch the Sunday Conversation, but put it this way: He says he was told that he was out of the game.

The Red Sox have nearly as much drama as the Yankees, especially since Pedro, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe and David Ortiz could well be free agents at the end of the year.

Garciaparra laid out his feelings publicly when he arrived in camp, and seems bound to have a great season, then treat the Red Sox like the other 29 teams. With the Cardinals optimistic about signing Edgar Renteria, that would leave Orlando Cabrera as the only other prominent free agent shortstop. The Cubs, Angels, White Sox, Dodgers, Mariners, Rangers and Giants all potentially are looking for a shortstop.

Nomar is clearly miffed that the Red Sox lowered their offer from $15 million to $12 million a year for four years, and that Lucchino based the offer on the presumption that Tejada was going to get the $9 million the Commissioner's Office prescribed. Then when Tejada got $12 million, the Garciaparra offer remained the same.

The club concerns about Garciaparra are as follows:

  • His 1998-1999-2000 OPS numbers were .946, 1.021 and 1.033. His 2002-2003 OPS numbers are .880 and .869.

  • He batted .243 on the road, with a .286 on-base percentage and .401 slugging.

  • He has gone from 60th to 30th to 15th to No. 1 in percentage swinging at the first pitch over his last four full seasons.

  • According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his RBI numbers from 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 reflect a drop when you consider that in 1999 and 2000 he ranked 78th and 73rd in number of runners on base in his at-bats, 14th each of the last two years. In 1999 and 2000, he came up with the 65th and 83rd most runners in scoring position, where the last two seasons he's ranked second and 17th.

    However, there are arguments the other way:

  • The top three shortstops all time in OPS are Alex Rodriguez (.963), Nomar (.925) and Arky Vaughn (.859).

  • Since 1997, his range factor has been considerably above the league norm, where in every one of those seasons Derek Jeter has been considerably below. Last year, the league norm was 4.15. Nomar was 4.41, A-Rod 4.43, Jeter 4.0.

  • Garciaparra keeps himself in phenomenal shape, has never and will never embarrass the club. He plays hard all the time and could well be headed into a new ascension after marrying Mia Hamm, as well as discovering like so many athletes the importance of diet.

    Then there's Manny Ramirez. "Some of the stuff in the offseason bothered me," says Ramirez, who went to the Dominican for three weeks before spring training to get in special hitting and conditioning before reporting in the best shape of his career. "I understand the trade, some of the other stuff. But it hurt me when people say I am a 'cancer' or 'a bad person.' I'm not, my teammates know that. I'm not perfect, but I'm a good person. I just hope to have a big year. You know what I'm proud of? That I've really improved in left field. I want to stay there. Trot Nixon's the best in right. I want to be the best in left."

    "Manny can be in la la land," says Martinez. "But he is a great hitter, maybe the best right-handed hitter in the game, and players like him because he is a very nice man. People don't realize that he gets to the park and does his weight work during the season at 9:30 in the morning. He goes home, naps, has lunch and comes to the park to hit at 2. I'll put my hand in the fire for the three hardest working men on our team -- Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and Manny Ramirez."

    Think Pokey Reese may help Derek Lowe? In 2003, Lowe's ERA with Damian Jackson playing second was 2.80, but over 5.00 with Todd Walker. With Rey Sanchez in 2002, Lowe was third in the Cy Young voting, 21-8, 2.58. Boston also has Carlos Febles in Triple-A, trying to see if he can regain his spirit that teammates felt melted with Tony Muser, especially with Luis Alicea working with the minor leagues. "He was the best two hitter I ever batted in front of," says Johnny Damon.

    Speaking of Damon, his long hair and beard looks like it came out of "The Passion of the Christ." "We call him Jesus," says Kevin Millar, "and he's running around sprinkling water on people to end the curse." Last year, the Red Sox players shaved their heads. This year they're talking about adopting the Damon look. If they do, instead of the House of David, they'll be the House of Damon.

    Clemens, Pettitte impact immediate
    The stories of the PR impact of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are now legendary, from the season-ticket boom to blowing out the switchboard to the crowds that greeted the Astros pitchers and catchers when they went out onto the field last weekend for the first time. More important, they have brought what Gerry Hunsicker calls "an edge" to a team that "may have gotten a little comfortable." And, perhaps best of all, it seems clear that will have an impact on the very talented pitchers that were already in place in Houston.

    Cardinals overlooked?
    Cardinals Yes, the Cardinals still play in the National League Central. "No one even mentions us," says Matt Morris.

    "To be honest," says Walt Jocketty, "we like it this way."

    "This is still a very good team," says Jason Isringhausen. "If a few things break right, we'll be right back in it again."

    The NL Central is definitely a two-tiered society, with the three Haves, and three Have Nots that are below the poverty line. But while the Cubs are going to cross the $90 million plateau, the Cardinals think they -- as well as Houston -- can stay in the race. And Isringhausen is one of the reasons everyone seems so optimistic before the games begin.

    "This is the best I've been in the first couple of months in three years," says the Cardinals' closer, who can dominate when healthy. "I absolutely feel as if I'm in for the whole year."

    "Missing him those first couple of months killed us," says Jocketty. When Izzy was able to pitch, he was 22-for-25 in save opportunities, had a 2.40 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 42 innings. But when he wasn't, they had to get saves from eight different relievers. With Steve Kline and Ray King from the left side, Cal Eldred, Kiko Calero, Julian Tavares and perhaps Alan Benes from the right, Tony La Russa could have a deep bullpen.

    The second reason for optimism is Chris Carpenter, who three years ago threw 215 innings and was a notch above Roy Halladay on the Toronto pecking order before going through two years of arm hell. "I originally had the operation in September 2002, then pushed it too fast and had another to scrape out scar tissue," says the former Jays' No. 1 draft pick. "It's been so long, I'm cautious about being too optimistic. People here are very positive. I keep hearing how I'm a big key. I hope so."

    To Morris and Woody Williams, Jocketty thinks of it as adding Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, two 200-inning horses, as well as Jason Marquis, who is trying to get back to being the power pitcher who showed so much promise in Atlanta. If that's the rotation, then they will have Danny Haren, Adam Wainright (the key to the Braves deal) and promising lefty Chris Narveson in Memphis. "This is potentially as much depth as we've ever had," says Jocketty.

    With Albert Pujols playing first, the Cardinals' biggest question is left field, where LaRussa and hitting coach Mitchell Page are closely watching the group of John Mabry, Ray Lankford, Greg Vaughn and Mark Quinn. This is a time-will-tell-if-they-need-to-deal thing, or just wait until Bernie Williams is healthy and Brian Cashman has to pay someone to take Kenny Lofton.

    "This is a very good team, a lot better than people think, and we'll prove it," says Kline. For now, they are the underdogs, the best role to have.

    "I think the impact will be that they will follow the way Roger and Andy prepare between and for their starts," says Brad Ausmus, who, fortunately for the Astros, is still with the club to handle this staff. "I know Roy [Oswalt], Wade [Miller] and Tim [Redding] all thought they worked hard at their preparation, but I'm not sure they knew how to. Now they will learn."

    Miller reported to camp with a different look, more chiseled. "Of course I'm going to learn from them," says Miller. "If Roger tells me to be at the park at seven in the morning, I'll be here."

    Oswalt and Miller, healthy, are top-of-the-rotation potential All-Stars, and because Oswalt never quit last season and stayed with the team to win four games in September despite the groin injury that required surgery, he is the Opening Day starter. With Pettitte and Clemens starting the next two days against the Giants, they are assured of sellouts in their first three games.

    Oswalt isn't worried about any carryover from the surgery, which essentially was the removal of the sheath around the muscle, since the problem was the sheath and not the muscle. "Mike Hampton had the exact same surgery," says Oswalt, "and look how he is. The muscle should be stronger." Says Hampton, "there will be no lingering problem."

    With Carlos Hernandez healthy, the athletic Brandon Backe (Geoff Blum trade) and the three pitchers acquired for Billy Wagner (Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz, Ezequiel Astacio) Hunsicker has masterfully rebuilt the pitching depth of the organization. In fact, if anything happened to their front five, Duckworth could get the chance to start. He, too, can benefit from the presence of the two men with 459 wins between them.

    Curiously, no one has worn 21 for the Red Sox since Roger left. Joe Girardi is already wearing 22 for the Yankees.

    Braves' post-Maddux era
    The Braves know better than anyone that they lost more than half their 235 home runs, and that there will be a lot of pressure on Adam LaRoche to hit, J.D. Drew to show that he likes to play enough to get out there for 140 games, Johnny Estrada to hit as he has most of his career and Mark DeRosa to prove he's ready for the starting job.

    But what jumps out at you in Orlando is that only John Smoltz is still there. "It's been a little tough early coming in and not seeing Greg (Maddux) in there, because he was always the first in the clubhouse riding the bike," says Bobby Cox. "But we still have a good staff. Hampton might have been the best pitcher in the league in the second half."

    Still ? in 1991, when the Braves vaulted from last to first, their staff had the third-best starters' ERA in the league. Then, incredibly, every year from 1992 through 2002, they led the majors in starters' ERA. In 2003, they fell to seventh in the National League, 10th in the majors. Think about that: 11 consecutive years their starters were the best in either league.

    "We respect the tradition here," says 21-game winner Russ Ortiz. "We want to keep it going." Hampton, Horacio Ramirez and John Thomson essentially have said the same thing.

    Hampton, incidentally, says it took him about half a year to get over Colorado. "I developed so many bad habits there," says Hampton. "I got so frustrated, that I would try to throw cross-seamers at 93 (mph) rather than my sinker, because it didn't work. You have to play there to believe it. I remember I shut out the Cardinals for eight innings in my debut, and the next morning I woke up and felt like I'd been run over by a truck. With the altitude, the recovery time kills you." Hampton lived in a house at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Had he stayed, they were going to build a bedroom for him that would recreated the atmosphere at 0 feet altitude.

    Speaking of LaRoche, Cox says that according to the minor league people, he might have the best arm of any lefty in camp. "He can really throw hard," says Cox. "He's something to see whipping the ball to second and third. He's really a good defensive first baseman."

    News and notes
  • Orlando Hernandez threw "considerably better" this week in a private showing for Boston on Wednesday and a public showing Friday for several teams. He still is three to four weeks from being ready to pitch in games, but there is genuine interest. "It's coming down to the Yankees and Red Sox," says one source close to El Duque. "We may have a good idea Monday." El Duque is still close to Boston bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, who was a star reliever for Industriales and the Cuban National team when Hernandez broke in with both. They have remained friends for many years.

  • The Twins are in the market for a starting pitcher, and will talk about Jacque Jones. That began some Jones-Kazuhisa Ishii rumors, which would force the Dodgers to take on $1.9 million this season.

  • Juan Gonzalez's luggage arrived at his hotel ahead of him, all 22 suitcases worth.

  • The Tigers are looking for a starting pitcher. Ivan Rodriguez tried to interest them in Ugueth Urbina, but they'd prefer a starter at this point.

  • Gabe Kapler says "Jeff Weaver will be a sleeper in the Cy Young race. Wait and see. He's going to be one of this season's best stories."

  • Memo to NHL scouts: go see Kirk Gibson's two sons, who are hockey rats. Their team finished second in the country last year -- losing to a team with Patrick Roy's son. The thought of a Gibson on skates is terrifying.

  • Memo to the Democratic National Committee: Not only should Pearl Jam do "Bu$hleaguer" before the keynote address, but it should be your theme song ("drillin' for fear makes the job easy ?").





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