Ten questions for the Orioles entering spring training:
1. Is Miguel Tejada happy?
After visiting their star shortstop in his native Dominican Republic shortly after he rescinded his trade demand, Orioles officials are confident Tejada is content and eager to turn the page on a rough 2005. Whether it was losing, being intertwined in the Rafael Palmeiro steroid controversy or feuding with teammate Sammy Sosa, Tejada was not himself in the second half, and it carried over to the field. Tejada hit just .276 with seven homers and 36 RBIs after the All-Star break. Come April, the spotlight on Tejada will be bright, and his mood will be analyzed on a nightly basis.
2. Will Brian Roberts be ready for Opening Day?
All signs point to Roberts being ready for the April 3 opener, or at worst, very soon after. Dr. Timothy Kremchek, who performed the ligament transplant surgery on Roberts' left elbow Sept. 30, saw the All-Star second baseman last week and said his elbow has full motion and strength. The plan is for Roberts, whose breakout 2005 season ended Sept. 20 with a gruesome collision at first base with the New York Yankees' Bubba Crosby, to ease his way into spring training and work his way to 100 percent by the end of it.
3. Is it too soon for Chris Ray to close?
It may be, but with the loss of All-Star closer B.J. Ryan, the trade of former closer Jorge Julio and the failure to sign a stopgap option such as Todd Jones or Braden Looper, the Orioles don't have much of a choice. Manager Sam Perlozzo has expressed concern about hurting the future of the hard-throwing 24-year-old, who appeared in 41 games last season, going 1-3 with a 2.66 ERA after overwhelming Double-A hitters. However, club officials rave about Ray's makeup.
4. How good is Leo Mazzone?
John-Charles Bradbury, a baseball economist, performed a study on this and found that Mazzone lowered a pitcher's ERA by a little more than a half-run on average. Mazzone's critics - yes, there are some even after his Atlanta Braves staffs finished first or second in the National League in ERA in 12 of the past 14 seasons - say Ray Miller's successor has benefited from great pitchers. But it's impossible to deny Mazzone's annual reclamation projects, such as Chris Hammond, John Burkett and Jorge Sosa. Team executives foresee Mazzone's influence on Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard and imagine the possibilities.
5. Can Javy Lopez play a solid first base?
Lopez and his agent, Chuck Berry, say he can, though some Orioles officials have their doubts that the displaced catcher will be able to make the transition, at least quickly enough to avoid costing the club games. Orioles vice president Jim Duquette was the general manager of the New York Mets when Mike Piazza's experiment at first base failed. Duquette said Lopez has a better shot because he is more athletic. For Lopez, at-bats and a contract extension could be riding on the result.
6. Will they all just get along?
Orioles officials denied the team had a fractured clubhouse last season, but their offseason moves suggest otherwise. Malcontent Steve Kline was traded, and Sidney Ponson, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, all distractions at some point last season, are also gone. Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar, two veterans known for their leadership and clubhouse presence, were brought in. Their job descriptions will be to make sure the Orioles, especially Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez, are unified, happy and loose.
7. Who's in center?
The job is Corey Patterson's to lose, but the former Cub, acquired for two minor leaguers, won't be handed the center-field position. He'll not only need to recapture his form of 2004, when he hit .266 with 24 homers and 72 RBIs - he batted .214 last year with 13 homers and 34 RBIs - but he'll also need to prove an asset defensively. Luis Matos, last year's starter, has clearly fallen out of favor and could be traded. However, a focused and fit Matos would make Sam Perlozzo's decision difficult. The wild card is prospect Nick Markakis, who could start in center or left field with a dynamic spring.
8. What will the Orioles get from Kris Benson aside from an outspoken wife?
The Orioles were praised throughout the industry for the trade that sent Jorge Julio and John Maine to the New York Mets for Benson. With Benson, the Orioles acquired a quality and durable No. 3 starter, who has logged at least 174 innings in four of six seasons and should give them a chance to win most times out. Benson has a 57-61 career record, but he is coming off a solid 10-8, 4.13 ERA campaign. In viewing the pitchers available via trades or free agency this offseason, the Orioles thought Benson was the best option for their money.
9. What effect will the World Baseball Classic have on the Orioles?
Final rosters haven't been set yet, but the Orioles could be represented in the WBC by as many as 12 players, one of the highest totals in the league. Team executives have been supportive of the tournament, but they also understand that it couldn't come at a worse time. Four of the Orioles' five projected starters could pitch in the WBC, robbing them of valuable spring training hours with pitching coach Leo Mazzone. New catcher Ramon Hernandez will play for Venezuela, and he will have to get acclimated to his staff in a shorter period.
10. How much difference will Ramon Hernandez make?
The Orioles signed Hernandez to a four-year, $27.5 million deal because of his sterling reputation for working with young pitchers, developed in his days in Oakland and San Diego. His bat - he is a career .262 hitter - is just a bonus. Even with Mazzone calling the game from the dugout, Hernandez should make the Orioles better defensively up the middle. His ability to communicate should also help Daniel Cabrera, who was accused last year by catchers Javy Lopez and Sal Fasano of being tough to settle down and communicate with.