Looking for answers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli is about to rediscover the reason spring training has become a six-week marathon for major league teams.

Coaching for the New York Yankees the past four seasons, Mazzilli could have been forgiven for thinking the entire exercise took too long. The Yankees have been such a well-oiled machine, their brain trust didn't exactly have to fret over the uncertainties each spring.

Mazzilli enters his first camp as Orioles manager today, when pitchers and catchers report, with about as many questions as the Yankees faced in the previous four springs combined.

Here are five of the biggest questions the Orioles face:

Who's poised for a breakout season?

Scouts were raving about Larry Bigbie at the end of last season, saying he was having some of the best at-bats of any hitter in the Orioles lineup. After July 31, Bigbie hit .328 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.

Former manager Mike Hargrove moved Bigbie to the third spot in the batting order for most of September, and despite the brutally difficult schedule the Orioles were facing, Bigbie responded by hitting .326 with a .376 on-base percentage.

Bigbie should get even better pitches to hit this season, now that the Orioles have added Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro to their lineup.

Which starting pitchers will grab rotation spots?

After signing Sidney Ponson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract, the Orioles clearly expect him to be the ace, and he'll likely get the nod on Opening Night, April 4, opposite Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards.

As for Game 2, it's wide-open. For projection purposes, the rest of the starting rotation could look like this: Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez and Matt Riley. But there are no guarantees for any of those four.

If someone falters, Omar Daal, Denny Bautista, John Maine and Rick Bauer are also candidates to make the rotation. This will be an ongoing saga that could change with each exhibition game.

Who gets traded, Jerry Hairston or Brian Roberts?

When the Yankees traded Alfonso Soriano to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez, it left a big hole at second base, and Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said his club would entertain the Yankees' best offers for Hairston or Roberts.

That showed how committed the Orioles are to getting good value in return for one of these players. They're not afraid to make a trade, even if it adds the one final missing piece to a hated division rival.

This same issue was there last spring, but, at the time, it was tough for the Orioles to sell other teams on Roberts because he had yet to prove he could hold down an everyday job in the big leagues. When Hairston got hurt in May, Roberts answered all doubts, batting .270 with 23 stolen bases and a .337 on-base percentage.

Hoping to maintain some leverage in trade talks, the Orioles have insisted they don't have to make a move. Roberts, who still has a minor league option remaining, could be used in a utility role, and he's good insurance in case Hairston's foot injury flares up again.

But this hardly seems like the best use of their resources, especially because their top position prospect, Mike Fontenot, is a second baseman.

Who will be the spring's biggest surprise?

Two years ago, Rodrigo Lopez rode his momentum from winter ball through spring training and went from minor league free agent to a spot on the Opening Day roster. He began the 2002 season in the bullpen but wound up finishing as runner-up in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Last spring, DuBose put the Orioles on notice that he was fully healed from rotator cuff surgery and starting to look like the pitcher the Oakland Athletics picked 21st overall in the 1997 draft. He started last season at Triple-A Ottawa but wound up going 3-5 with a 3.71 ERA in 10 starts for the Orioles.

So who's next? Maybe right-handed pitcher Bautista. The Orioles got him from the Florida Marlins in the Jeff Conine trade, and team officials can't wait to see how this 6-foot-5 power pitcher looks in big league camp this spring.

With four starting pitching spots up for grabs, maybe Bautista's time will come sooner than expected.

"He could certainly be a big boost," Beattie said. "I think probably in a good scenario, he could be ready for the second half of the season, but it may come sooner.

"Both he and John Maine are going to be at Double-A to start the year, and things happen quickly from Double-A. ... If they demonstrate that they're ready to move, we're going to move them."

How will Melvin Mora adjust to third base?

In theory, the left side of the Orioles' infield -- Tejada at shortstop and Mora at third -- has improved significantly over last year's rather immobile duo of Deivi Cruz and Tony Batista.

Still, Mora will have to get used to the change. He played six positions last year but hasn't spent a single inning at third base since 2000. Nonetheless, the Orioles are confident he'll be fine, and they backed it up by giving him a three-year, $10.5 million contract last month.

Mora played a full year at third base in 1994, when he was at Single-A Osceola in the Houston Astros' farm system. He also played five games there this winter in Venezuela and said he doesn't think it will take him long to get comfortable during spring training.

"Just for two weeks, in my mind," Mora said. "Everything's fine. I know the team can count on me. Whatever they want to do with me, I'm pretty happy."

If you go

Ballpark: Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Stadium

Built: 1962.

Orioles' years there: Nine.

Capacity: 8,340.

Dimensions: 332 feet to left field, 320 to right, 401 to center

Ticket prices: Box seats $15; reserved grandstand $10 (seating under cover); general admission $7 for adults/$3 for children 14 and under. Children under 3 do not require game-day ticket.

Purchasing tickets online: Go to www.theorioles.com and click on tickets logo.

Purchasing tickets at stadium: Windows are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. No individual game phone orders are accepted through the stadium.

Purchasing tickets by fax or mail: Call 954-776-1921 to receive an order form. Order forms also may be mailed to the stadium with a check, money order or credit card guarantee.

Purchasing tickets by phone: Call Florida Ticketmaster at 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885 or 561-966-3309. There is a service charge.

Ticket options: For season tickets, group discounts or skyboxes, call 954-776-1921.

Senior discount days: Fans 60 and older can purchase a reserved grandstand seat for weekday afternoon games for $5. Tickets must be bought 24 hours in advance.

What can be brought into the stadium?: Stadium policies prohibit bats, umbrellas, cans, glass bottles, jugs, hard coolers and thermoses. They also restrict baggage of any type, including backpacks, duffel bags, briefcases and oversized handbags. You may bring cameras and cell phones but not large electronic equipment, such as camcorders and laptop computers. Ballpark security reserves the right to inspect all items carried into the ballpark.

Getting into the stadium: Gates open two hours before game time. There are three separate entrances to the ballpark: one for box and reserved grandstand seating, one for left-field general admission and one for right-field general admission. There is no re-entry.

Parking: $5.

Attending practices: Workouts are accessible only before the Grapefruit League schedule begins. Admission is free. Gates open at 9 a.m.

Autographs: Autograph seeking is permitted in the two-hour window before game time. Fans will be allowed down near the field but cannot block the view of someone seated for the game.

Orioles Charity Breakfast: Feb. 29, 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Cost is $15. Includes an on-field autograph session with Orioles players, a photo opportunity with the Orioles mascot and memorabilia auctions. Call 954-776-1921.

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