THE KEY TO getting into this year's postseason may be found in the most foreign of places for baseball success: Tampa Bay.
The Devil Rays have lost 90 or more games in each of their first seven seasons and are on pace for their third 100-loss season.
But they may decide which teams make the playoffs, and not just because they have befuddled the New York Yankees this year.
As the July 31 trading deadline nears, this much is certain: The 2005 trade market is filled with more buyers than sellers.
Like the Orioles, most teams covet starting pitching. And unless a team can offer an overwhelming package for Roger Clemens, Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt - if one really is available - there's little quality starting pitching on the open market.
Instead, there's a host of No. 4 starters out there, and even they won't come cheap. So potential contenders like the Orioles have to decide whether to fill their obvious pitching needs with mediocre additions or further strengthen a strength like the lineup or bullpen. That's why the Tampa Bay Devil Rays may hold the key.
Like most everyone else, they are weak in starting pitching. But they do have a quality bat and a solid closer to dangle.
Although his numbers are down, Rays corner outfielder-first baseman Aubrey Huff might be the most proven - and healthy - offensive player available. And though closer Danys Baez isn't among the elite, he has saved 42 of his past 51 save opportunities and could provide stability to a contender's bullpen.
"Aubrey Huff and Danys Baez, already in the month of June have created more interest than any two players we've ever had going into the deadline," said Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar. "And I don't have to trade either of them. They fit into next year's budget."
Huff is signed for $6.75 million in 2006. The team has a $4 million option ($1 million buyout) on Baez. Relatively speaking, both are affordable, though they currently make up about a quarter of the club's payroll.
Since they wouldn't lose them at the end of the year, the Rays can afford to hold out for an eye-popping deal, like last July when they got uber-prospect Scott Kazmir from the New York Mets for starter Victor Zambrano.
One scout familiar with the Devil Rays said, based on their reputation as difficult negotiators, expect Tampa Bay to "hold teams hostage" for the right deal.
That perception irks LaMar. His thinking is simple: He has valuable commodities in a weak market. And if someone wants Huff or Baez, he is going to pay accordingly.
Now, the question is will the Orioles step up to the Huff table? Undoubtedly, the club needs to bolster its starting rotation if it hopes to win the American League East. The Orioles have limited bullets to pull off a big deadline trade. And their offense is one of the best in the league.
When told the Orioles might be interested in adding his left-handed bat, Huff joked: "They don't have enough [offense] already?"
Adding him might be overkill, but if the Orioles can't significantly improve the rotation maybe it is the way to go.
Huff, 28, has averaged nearly 30 homers in his past three seasons and has driven in 100 or more runs in his past two despite playing for the lowly Rays. This season his numbers are down - he had just four homers and batted .253 in his first 69 games.
But the scout who has watched him repeatedly said his body and swing haven't changed from past years. He just thinks that the naturally slow starter is finally being affected by Tampa Bay's continual losing.
"This is the toughest year I have been a part of here. Personally and team-wise," Huff said. "It's just not been a very fun year. ... We have lost before, but at least it has been fun. This has just been a rough year. There's only so much losing you can take before it starts wearing on you."
Huff isn't asking for a trade, but you don't need to be a linguist to read between his lines.
"It could be a lot worse," he said. "There are worse things in life. Playing for the Devil Rays is fine."
At least one high-ranking Orioles official acknowledges that he'd love to see what Huff could do with a change of scenery. He's not the only one, though. Because of his age, numbers and durability, Huff might be the premier name available on the market. And Baez probably isn't far behind.
Amazingly, that makes the Devil Rays one of baseball's most intriguing teams over the next month.
"We're going to have to give him some rocks [to put] in his pocket when we get an out so he can drop one out there."
Astros manager Phil Garner on Houston outfielder Jason Lane, who recently threw a ball into the stands as a souvenir, not realizing there were only two outs in the inning. The miscue allowed a runner to score from second base.
Grady Sizemore, a 22-year-old, left-handed-hitting center fielder. Considered the next great Cleveland Indians outfielder, Sizemore mixes speed and excellent hand-eye coordination with a little bit of pop. A third-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 2000, he chose pro baseball over a scholarship to play football and baseball at the University of Washington. Sent to Cleveland with three others in the 2002 Bartolo Colon deal, he's in his first full season in the majors. He is among the league leaders in batting average and had six homers and eight stolen bases in his first 68 games.
That's how many bases New York's Carlos Beltran has stolen in his first 65 games. Beltran had 42 last season and has averaged 33 steals and 37 attempts per 162 games in his career. He has just three attempts in 2005.
The Yankees come into Camden Yards looking up at the Orioles for the first time since 1997. Their three-game series begins tomorrow. Elsewhere, the Dodgers can push upward in the NL West when they host San Diego and Arizona this week. The two AL West leaders, the Angels and the Rangers, face off for a four-game showdown in Texas.