TEN QUESTIONS

The Baltimore Sun

HAVE THE ORIOLES IMPROVED ENOUGH TO MAKE WAVES IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST?

The consensus answer now is "no." Sure, the bullpen is drastically better and the offense also looks more dangerous with the addition of Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff. Before the news of Kris Benson's injury, the rotation also seemed stronger, if for no other reason than Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen are a year older and Jaret Wright likely will be an upgrade over Bruce Chen. The problem is the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox also figure to have improved since last season, and while the Toronto Blue Jays lost some pitching, they gained slugger Frank Thomas. If you compared the Orioles position by position and pitcher by pitcher with those three teams, they'd still come up short in many of the matchups.

Can Jay Gibbons become an adequate first baseman?

Club officials wonder if the often-injured Gibbons has the necessary athleticism and tools to play first base. Gibbons, who lost his starting right-field spot last season and isn't interested in becoming a full-time designated hitter at age 30, has played only 86 career games at first and hasn't been there regularly since the minors. He has gotten good reviews for his offseason work at first with bench coach Tom Trebelhorn. However, as Javy Lopez learned last spring, the position requires far more than merely fielding ground balls. Gibbons will get a chance this spring, but he's no better than third on the team's depth chart behind Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff, and he'd really have to impress to be considered the everyday first baseman.

Are there enough at-bats available to keep everyone happy?

The Orioles have a lot of similar parts, which could make manager Sam Perlozzo's job difficult. He might have to rely on platoons and, in some cases, sacrifice defense to keep his best players in the lineup. Huff is considered a shaky outfielder, but if he is used exclusively at designated hitter or first base, Millar and Gibbons will see their at-bats cut substantially. So Huff will have to play some outfield, and that potentially means less time for Jay Payton and Corey Patterson. Payton and Millar were outspoken in Boston when they weren't pleased with their playing time. This could be Perlozzo's biggest challenge in 2007.

Will Miguel Tejada show signs of slowing down?

Tejada's home-run total (24) was down again last season, but it's hard to find fault with a year when he batted .330, set a franchise record with 214 hits, drove in 100 runs and played in all 162 games. Though he was criticized for his lack of range at shortstop early last season, he got much better as his knee became healthier. He finished with 19 errors, his lowest total since 2002. Tejada, who has played in 1,080 consecutive games, also has realized the importance of taking better care of his body, putting himself through a more rigorous workout regimen this offseason. Tejada will turn 31 in May, but the Orioles expect the same exuberant and productive player they have seen in the past.

What will Nick Markakis do for an encore?

Last year was a tale of three seasons for the rookie outfielder, who started in a terrible slump, went on an offensive tear for three months and slumped again in September. Markakis' confidence and work ethic impressed his teammates and coaches, who noted how the 23-year-old stayed on an even keel through the highs and lows of his rookie season. Those characteristics should help Markakis avoid a sophomore slump, which has befallen many players before him.

How much will Aubrey Huff improve the Orioles' offense?

Huff's numbers put him in impressive company. He is one of 10 players in baseball to have five consecutive seasons with 20 homers and 25 doubles, and one of 17 players to have hit 20 or more home runs for five consecutive years. He has also averaged 92 RBIs over the past four seasons. But the home run and RBI totals of the corner outfielder, infielder and designated hitter also have dropped each of the past three seasons, leading some scouts to suggest that he is on the decline. Though he might not be the same threat as in 2003, when he had 34 home runs and 107 RBIs, Huff is still a sizable upgrade for the Orioles and could make teams think twice about pitching around Tejada.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

How good is Erik Bedard?

The 27-year-old left-hander set career highs in wins (15), innings (196 1/3 ) and strikeouts (171). His 3.76 ERA, also a career best, ranked ninth in the American League. And he did it all for a fourth-place team in the unforgiving AL East. Still, Bedard struggled at times with his consistency. He went through one stretch with just one win in 10 outings and another stretch when he went winless in seven starts. Still, each year, Bedard has seemingly gotten better, smarter and more confident. One scout who watched him several times last year called the Oriole one of the top five pitchers in the AL.

Was spending $40 million-plus on a bullpen makeover a foolish investment?

It depends on whom you ask. The Orioles' decision to dole out three-year deals and a total of $41.5 million to right-handed setup men Danys Baez and Chad Bradford and left-handed specialist Jamie Walker was largely criticized around the industry. One general manager even laughed out loud when he was informed that they paid Walker $12 million. Because of the fickle nature of relievers, many executives refrain from handing them huge contracts. But after watching their bullpen give up the most home runs and post the second-worst ERA in the league, the Orioles felt they had no choice. The club lost 18 games last year when it was tied or winning after the sixth inning. If the revamped bullpen turns that around and gives the young starting staff more confidence, the Orioles will be the ones laughing.

Will the second year under pitching coach Leo Mazzone make a big difference?

Mazzone thinks so, saying last week that he is far more comfortable with his surroundings. "It's a whole new ballgame," he said. He pointed to the talent infusion in the bullpen, the emergence of Erik Bedard, the experience Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen gained and having the full spring to work his pitchers, rather than losing four-fifths of his rotation for stretches during the World Baseball Classic. Mazzone's in-your-face style clearly didn't mesh with Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen, but both are gone, and the Orioles added Jaret Wright, who had his best season under Mazzone in Atlanta. The team ERA last year was 5.35, the second highest in the major leagues and the second worst in club history. That has to change dramatically for the club to have a winning season.

Will Daniel Cabrera finally find some consistency?

That's the hope, that the enigmatic Cabrera spent the offseason thinking about his last outing - he came two outs away from no-hitting the New York Yankees - and realizing that if he throws strikes, he can dominate. Cabrera led the American League last year in walks and wild pitches despite missing a combined 6 1/2 weeks on the disabled list and in the minors. He returned from the minor league trip humbled and more focused on cutting down his walk totals. In 10 starts after being recalled to the big leagues, he walked 29. In his 10 starts before the demotion, he walked 50. The Orioles have remained patient with the 25-year-old, who had Lasik surgery this offseason, but the 2007 season may be his last chance.

Jeff Zrebiec's roster analysis

Infielders

Chris Gomez

Returns for third season to provide right-handed bat, versatility off bench.

Kevin Millar

Should get majority of starts at first base but needs to produce offensively.

Melvin Mora

Orioles hoping he bounces back from disappointing 2006 season.

Brian Roberts

Further removed from arm surgery, leadoff man is back at full strength.

Miguel Tejada

Expected to arrive in better shape and without trade rumors swirling.

Outfielders

Freddie Bynum

His ability to also play infield gives him edge for final bench spot.

Jay Gibbons

Orioles want to know what he'll do if healthy enough to get 550 at-bats.

Aubrey Huff

Will play several positions but main job will be to protect Tejada.

Nick Markakis

A lot of eyes will be watching how he follows strong rookie season.

Corey Patterson

A nice surprise last year but has always struggled to stay consistent.

Jay Payton

Veteran will bring versatility and attitude to the Orioles' outfield picture.

Catchers

Paul Bako

Journeyman well schooled in how Leo Mazzone wants a game called.

Ramon Hernandez

Should be better rested in attempt to duplicate standout 2006 season.

Starters

Erik Bedard

In 15-win season, left no doubt that he has emerged and is Orioles' best pitcher.

Kris Benson

Shoulder injury will keep veteran out of Orioles' rotation for much of 2007.

Daniel Cabrera

The Orioles need this to be the year right-hander finally figures it out.

Adam Loewen

Made great strides last year but is being counted on to do much more.

Steve Trachsel

Veteran starter just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Jaret Wright

Had his best year with Mazzone, though durability questions remain.

Relievers

Danys Baez

Orioles paid him closer's money to come in and serve as top setup man.

Kurt Birkins

Could fill second left-handed and long relief roles in Orioles' reworked bullpen.

Chad Bradford

Club would be quite content if submariner duplicates 2006 results.

Chris Ray

After last year, there are no more concerns over his ability to fill closer spot.

Jamie Walker

Left-handed specialist will get chances to earn contract vs. likes of David Ortiz, Jason Giambi.

Todd Williams

Orioles banking on him being healthier and in better shape than he was last year.

Scott Williamson

Likely will make the team but injury history makes him a wild card.

Ten others to watch

Brian Burres -- Will compete with Kurt Birkins and John Parrish if O's take second left-hander in bullpen.

Brandon Fahey -- Nice story last year but will be hard-pressed to break camp with team.

Jeff Fiorentino -- Offseason additions mean outfielder likely headed for Triple-A Norfolk.

Jeremy Guthrie -- Right-handed swing man could benefit if O's goes with only one left-hander in bullpen.

Jim Hoey -- O's would prefer hard-throwing reliever get more seasoning in minors.

J.R. House -- Catcher's bat could have him in conversation for spot on Orioles' bench.

Jon Knott -- Minor league stats impressive but 1B/OF has little big league experience.

Garrett Olson -- At some point this season, O's want to get a look at young left-handed starter.

Hayden Penn -- Will be in O's rotation at some point this season, if not on Opening Day.

Adam Stern -- Outfielder came over in Javy Lopez deal and has shot at last roster spot.

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