Who can argue with picking O's?


Owing mostly to the desire to improve the general tone of my mail, I'm picking the Orioles to win their division this year. And while I'm at it, your taxes are too high and you deserve a raise.

Someone once said that popularity was as simple as telling people what they wanted to hear. I'm guessing that no one around here will be angry at the suggestion that the Orioles are headed for their first postseason appearance in a decade.

I really mean it, although I admit that the top item on my agenda is giving my mailbox a rest. The poor thing has been scalded lately with polemics on such normally gentle topics as figure skating and right field. I guess winter lasted a little too long, or maybe everyone is just upset about the Skipjacks, but it seems like a good time for some ear-friendly news to calm everyone down.

You're right, your boss is a jerk. Your kids are going to start appreciating you any day now. You don't have to shovel any more of that thousand-pound snow. You can start saving for playoff tickets.

Actually, just the arrival alone of baseball season is good news. It'll be a terrific year, even if the Orioles finish 20 out. The All-Star Game is coming and Eli Jacobs is going. You can't top that exacta.

Eli's expected departure from the owner's box could be critical come September. The Orioles will be in a race with the Blue Jays and Yankees, who will spare no expense on the pennant-drive pickup that might make the difference, as the Blue Jays did last year with David Cone. Eli's Orioles have been corner-cutters; their bold strokes always pale next to Toronto's. Maybe that will change. Hey, maybe the bankruptcy judge will be a big spender.

In any event, the Orioles should finish on top, although the truth is they might not be any better than last season.

It's always hard to tell, of course. Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson probably won't produce any more than last season, Cal Ripken probably no less. Let's be charitable and call that a draw.

Replacing Randy Milligan with Harold Baines is an overrated fix. Baines has averaged only one more homer and 18 more RBI the past three years. Big deal. Milligan's on-base percentage was 50 points higher last year. Let's be charitable and give Baines a slight edge.

Harold Reynolds should help, but he's going to bat ninth. The club will be thrilled if Chris Hoiles and Leo Gomez combine for 37 homers again. Actually, they're capable of taking the major step up the club needs, but let's see it happen. And as always, all bets are off with Glenn Davis.

Now, is that a more potent lineup than a year ago? I'm not so sure. And remember, this team fell out of contention last September when it stopped hitting.

But before you grab a pen and start buffeting my mailbox with more vitriol, understand the basic thesis here: The Orioles might not need to be any better than last year to win the division.

They finished behind the Blue Jays and Brewers last year, and both of those teams have taken significant steps backward, losing more than a dozen free agents between them.

The Orioles won 89 games last year and finished seven back, but this year it might not take more than 89 to advance in the semi-return of the AL Least.

Eighty-nine wins would have won part or all of three division titles from 1988 to 1990, and this year's race is shaping up along those lines with the Jays mortal again and working on a case of complacency.

Against that backdrop, the Orioles might not need to be more potent than a year ago, when they had a higher average and more homers than AL West-winner Oakland. No, they'll win with pitching and defense, of which there is enough.

Mike Mussina is a star. At the worst, Ben McDonald will be the workhorse .500 of a year ago. (And probably a couple of notches better.) Rick Sutcliffe should be good for at least 12 wins. The bullpen is one of the best.

Arthur Rhodes might be the player on whom the season swings. He could win 20 or be in Rochester by June. The former is more likely.

Put all that together with sound defense and it's a division-winning package. Not a Series-winning package, mind you. Not even close. The Braves have too much starting pitching to be denied this year, and they'll find the closer they need. It's their year. The Orioles could have competed had they done the right thing and turned some of their Camden Yards profits into Ruben Sierra. You know the deal there.

But you won't complain with a division title at the five-year anniversary of 0-21, will you? Didn't think so. Oh, and by the way, you look marvelous.

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