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'Pen points way

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Two weeks from the start of the season, the Orioles had an open date yesterday. Without a game to play, the club and its observers could analyze the Orioles' performance at spring training, something not measured by the team's 9-8-2 record.

If signs of progress aren't readily apparent in a balky offense, the starting rotation and bullpen clearly are improved, and the only remaining questions about the roster involve the last spots on the bench and in the bullpen.

Take away the 9-0 and 7-3 wins in split-squad games Saturday, and the Orioles' offense has been stagnant. It has totaled nine runs in seven losses since March 10. Both of the Orioles' ties ended 2-2. Rather than open the floodgates, they turn the faucet and get a few drips.

"The offense has been a little bit of a surprise in terms of its struggling," club vice president Jim Duquette said.

Better to focus on the pitching, which has produced a 3.42 ERA and showcased Opening Day starter Erik Bedard. And on the crisp workouts and favorable attitudes that shaped this year's camp.

But first, the lineup.

Right fielder Nick Markakis, projected to bat third, is hitting .400 and destroying the notion of a sophomore jinx. First baseman Aubrey Huff, expected to bat fifth and offer some protection for shortstop Miguel Tejada, is hitting .382 with seven RBIs - second on the team to Melvin Mora's eight. Catcher Ramon Hernandez is hitting .300. Outfielder Jay Payton is hitting .355 with six RBIs.

If these guys are in the fast lane, they're blowing past Jay Gibbons (.208), Corey Patterson (.161) and Kevin Millar (.059).

"The improvement in the lineup is directly related to where Jay Payton is hitting," said Buck Martinez, part of the Orioles' broadcast team on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and a former major league catcher and manager.

"He hit sixth for a postseason team in Oakland last year, and he's going to hit ninth in this lineup. And it just speaks to the depth with the additions of Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton that, offensively, this team can compete in the [American League] East."

Huff has the highest slugging percentage among regulars at .529. He was the marquee addition to the lineup, a player who didn't cost much, but could give the Orioles a huge return.

"That's probably 100 RBIs and 20 home runs," Tejada said.

Most of the attention this spring has fallen upon the young core of the starting rotation: Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen, who have allowed eight runs and struck out 38 in 36 innings. They're doing more than living up to the hype. They're exceeding it.

That's especially true of Bedard, who's 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA, three walks and 13 strikeouts in 14 innings. Once anointed the ace by default, he now looks the part.

"I think we're better because the young guys are getting older. They're learning. They're better," Tejada said.

Said Martinez: "I've seen a marked improvement in those three pitchers. I see a maturation that's kind of surprising. Now they're walking around like professional pitchers trying to get ready for a season, as opposed to young prospects trying to make a team. They work with a focus of getting better in side sessions.

"I watched Loewen throw on the side the other day and he looked like a Ron Guidry throwing. He hit his spots, changed speeds and got movement. And I think Daniel's confidence and improvement are dramatic. He's got the confidence to throw his changeup and use it effectively. You talk to hitters around the league, nobody wants to face Loewen, Bedard and Cabrera."

The younger guys have outperformed the veterans. Steve Trachsel did a better job of keeping the ball down in his last start, but he has an 8.18 ERA in four games and has allowed 22 hits in 11 innings. Jaret Wright, brought along more slowly because of his past shoulder problems, has a 4.50 ERA in six innings.

"We expect to see guys starting to get some outs as camp goes on," Duquette said. "A couple of the veterans are getting their work in, and I don't think it's an overall concern because they have a track record."

Take away one horrific day, and the four free-agent relievers - Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson - have allowed four runs and 13 hits in 22 innings. Bradford and Baez combined to surrender nine runs in one inning Friday.

Defensively, the Orioles should be improved with Payton getting most of the starts in left and Markakis staying in right. Tejada is in better shape and covering more ground. But Huff isn't going to win any Gold Gloves at first - he has struggled to field balls in the dirt in workouts - and Perlozzo scrapped plans to use Jay Gibbons there.

"First base is a concern. There's no doubt about it," Martinez said. "People discount how important first base is. Every ball that goes by the third baseman is extra bases. Well, every ball that goes by the first baseman is extra bases, too. Plus, he handles the ball more than anybody except the catcher. You look around at the good teams, and they all have good defensive first basemen."

It speaks volumes that Perlozzo again intends to use Chris Gomez as a late-inning defensive replacement at first, though Gomez is a natural shortstop.

"It's an area we're going to keep an eye on," Duquette said. "We're at least as good as we were last year. If there's a chance we can upgrade, great, but I don't expect that to happen. Certainly not in the spring, anyway."

Mora committed his fourth error Sunday, but the rock-hard infield, bright sun and strong winds complicate any attempts to rate the defense.

"It's a little different down here," Duquette said.

Perhaps the same can be said for the attitude in the clubhouse and on the field during workouts, which have taken on a more serious tone in Perlozzo's second full season as manager.

"Now, everybody's more for the team," Tejada said. "They're happy to see everybody's face in the morning. They can't wait for the season to start."

The Orioles break camp March 28. They'll play three more exhibition games farther north, all against the Washington Nationals, before heading to Minnesota and beginning what they hope will be their first winning season in 10 years.

Until then, they check a to-do list that's more of a Post-it note. They must decide whether to carry 13 pitchers, making it easier to keep a second left-hander in the bullpen and former first-round draft pick Jeremy Guthrie, who is out of options. It also would eliminate the search for another reserve, which otherwise might take them outside the organization.

"Overall, we're pleased with the way it's all shaken out at this point," Duquette said. "We have a lot less decisions to make when it comes to sitting down and talking to our coaching staff and front office staff than we had last year.

"Last year, we weren't talking about the last spot on the bench and the last two spots in the bullpen. Those are things that we're spending more time talking about this year. We had question marks in a lot of different areas. We weren't sure what we were going to do in center. Left field was a disaster. The bullpen was a disaster. So it's a much different feeling, for sure."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

ROCH KUBATKO REVIEW THE ORIOLES

Up to 5 baseballsm with 1 being the worst and 5 the best

HITTING -- 3 BASEBALLS

The Orioles failed to land a true cleanup hitter through free agency or trade, but Aubrey Huff could be a bargain hitting behind Miquel Tejada (above). This unit has scuffled to produce runs in spring training.

FIELDING -- 3 BASEBALLS

Good in some places, weak in others. Tejada is moving better and jay Payton is an upgrade in left. Iron gloves, not Gold Gloves, at first.

STARTERS -- 3 BASEBALLS

Erik Bedard looks like the real deal and Daniel Cabrera can be dominant, but is Adam Loewen ready for a full season as a starter? And how much do veterans Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel have left?

BENCH -- 2 BASEBALLS

If the Orioles keep an extra reserve, they want a right-handed hitter who can play infield and outfield. Otherwise, it's backup catcher Paul Bako, infielder Chris Gomez and possibly Kevin Millar.

BULLPEN -- 4 BASEBALLS

The four free agents will make it easier to pass a lead to Chris Ray and there's no shortage of long-and-middle-relief candidates. This is easily a team strenght.

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