When the Orioles took the $30 million plunge and signed Rafael Palmeiro as a free agent last winter, they did so with great expectations.
If the rest of their investment pays as much of a dividend as roughly the first 10 percent has, they will have been well compensated. Palmeiro still has almost 4 1/2 years to go on his contract, but he already has been around long enough to get an idea of what he brings to the party.
You can't judge a career on half a season, and Palmeiro needs to log a couple thousand more at-bats to qualify, but before he's through the smooth-swinging first baseman possibly could rank as the best overall hitter in Orioles history.
Considering those who have preceded him in the previous 40 years, that is a rash assessment. Frank Robinson won a Triple Crown and had six remarkably productive years; Ken Singleton provided a rare combination of average, power and on-base percentage; Eddie Murray laid the groundwork for a Hall of Fame career during his 12 years with the Orioles, and Cal Ripken twice has exceeded 200 hits in a season.
But when it comes to combining all of the ingredients -- average, power, on-base percentage, speed -- Palmeiro looms as the best pure hitter of the impressive bunch.
During his entire career, Robinson unquestionably ranks at the top of this elite group. For this comparison, however, only years spent with the Orioles are considered.
Palmeiro has to put in a few more seasons before jumping to the head of this class, but if projections mean anything, he has a considerable head start. And if a strike should wipe out a significant part of this season, it would destroy what could be one of the best offensive years in club history.
Singleton's .328 average in 1977 is clearly within Palmeiro's sights, and Palmeiro is on a pace to hit 34 home runs and drive in 110 runs, both figures good enough to place him among the Orioles' all-time leaders for one season.
Over the longer haul, among those with at least 2,000 at-bats with the Orioles, Robinson is the career leader with a .300 average. Palmeiro, who turns 30 in September, is now at .299 for his seven seasons -- and his best years should still be ahead of him.
Palmeiro is on a tear in which he has hit home runs in four of the past five games to take over the club lead with 19.
His RBI pace has improved dramatically and his average has hovered around .340 most of the season.
Those numbers, from somebody just reaching his prime, suggest there's much more to come. Enough, perhaps, for Palmeiro to earn recognition as the best pure hitter ever to swing for the Orioles.