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Question marks

1. How low will they go? The consensus is that the Orioles will finally be overtaken by the Tampa Bay Rays and finish last in the American League East. It's hard to argue with that. The Rays have an explosive offense and have improved their starting pitching and bullpen. Immersed in a rebuilding effort, the Orioles have weakened just about all areas of their team in the present. But where they finish will be inconsequential to the front office, and it should be for the fans. This season is about growth and development and taking steps toward being a contender by 2010. That said, with the number of youngsters they will rely on, specifically on the mound, it could get ugly at times for the 2008 Orioles.

2. With Miguel Tejada in Houston, who will emerge as the team leader?

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Say what you want about Tejada, but he was deeply admired and respected in the Orioles' clubhouse, and his trade will leave a leadership void. If Brian Roberts doesn't get traded, he is a candidate to fill it, though he leads more by example. Nick Markakis, the team's best all-around player, has said he would be willing to assume more of a leadership role, but he's just 24 and more of an observer than a talker. That means the onus will fall on Melvin Mora, Kevin Millar and Jamie Walker, who has said he will be much more vocal in his second season with the club.

3. Will Nick Markakis be hurt by a lack of lineup protection? It certainly can't help the third-year outfielder that the Tejada trade left the Orioles without a proven run producer behind him in the cleanup spot. Tejada's power numbers plummeted in his last three seasons here, but he still inspired more caution in a pitcher than current cleanup candidates Millar, Luke Scott, Ramon Hernandez and Aubrey Huff will. Thus, pitchers probably will tread more carefully with Markakis, who quietly hit .300 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs last season. The only blemish was his 112 strikeouts, a result of being more aggressive at the plate. No matter who is protecting Markakis in the lineup, his numbers will be there by season's end. He makes adjustments as well as any young hitter Terry Crowley has coached.

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4. How will the rotation shake out? The trade of ace Erik Bedard essentially leaves the Orioles with three definite rotation members, and one of them, Adam Loewen, is coming off elbow surgery. At this point, it appears Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera and Loewen will be the top three starters, with Guthrie getting the ball Opening Day. The fourth spot likely will go to veteran Steve Trachsel, who signed a minor league deal this week. The battle for the No. 5 spot could be the most interesting. The candidates include Matt Albers, Brian Burres, Lance Cormier, Jon Leicester, Radhames Liz, Garrett Olson, Troy Patton and Hayden Penn.

5. Can Adam Loewen stay healthy? Loewen, a 23-year-old left-hander, appeared to be on the verge of some nice things last year. He had a terrific spring and was 2-0 through his first five starts. But he was forced to leave his sixth start at Detroit with what later was diagnosed as a stress fracture in his left elbow. He didn't pitch again after May 1, ultimately needing a screw inserted into the elbow to aid healing. He said last week that he feels so good, it's as if he never had the procedure. His only concern is rediscovering the feel for his breaking ball.

6. Will Brian Roberts be the next former Oriole?

Perhaps, but maybe not right away. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has engaged in trade talks about the All-Star second baseman for months, so it won't be surprising if he pulls something off soon. But there's really no rush. Roberts is a good defensive player, an offensive catalyst and a team leader. The Orioles wouldn't mind having him around for a while to work with the young players and to continue his role as the face of the team. Because he's under contractual control through the 2009 season, the Orioles could keep him for a couple of months and then reopen trade talks before the July deadline.

7. How will manager Dave Trembley set up his bullpen?

The Orioles committed more than $40 million to their relief corps before last season, and the result was a 5.71 bullpen ERA, the worst in franchise history. MacPhail used an entirely different approach this offseason. He acquired George Sherrill and Dennis Sarfate in trades, selected Randor Bierd in the Rule 5 draft and claimed right-hander Greg Aquino off waivers. With Chris Ray and Danys Baez expected to miss the season with injuries, Sherrill likely will be the closer even though he has only four career saves. Trembley would love to play the matchups with left-hander Walker and right-hander Chad Bradford in the seventh inning. But that will depend on somebody emerging as a reliable option in the eighth. Sarfate, who throws in the high 90s, could be that guy.

8. Will new pitching coach Rick Kranitz do what Leo Mazzone couldn't? It probably isn't fair to compare the two because Kranitz doesn't have an ace like Bedard to lead his staff. Mazzone is considered one of the best at what he does for a reason, but he was never a good fit with the Orioles because of their reliance on young pitchers. Mazzone is impatient and gruff, and he wanted pitchers to adapt to his philosophies. His rigid style worked with some of the stronger-minded pitchers (see Bedard), but intimidated others (see Olson). Kranitz is patient, laid-back and adapts to the pitchers rather than the other way around. Those characteristics worked well for Kranitz in molding the Florida Marlins' staff. But this will be a bigger challenge.

9. How good is Adam Jones? Scouts and baseball executives absolutely glow when they talk about Jones, the centerpiece in the Orioles' trade for Bedard. They say there's little Jones can't do. He'll probably make his most immediate impact in center field with his speed and strong arm. However, talent evaluators have no doubt that he'll perform offensively in the major leagues; it's just a matter of when. MacPhail is preaching patience. Jones is 22 and has only 139 big league at-bats. Consider the slow start Markakis got off to as a 22-year-old rookie. He turned out just fine, and so will Jones, who is bright, athletic and talented.

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10. Which Oriole has the most to prove? Catcher Hernandez is coming off a down year in which his conditioning and desire were questioned. Huff and Jay Payton, signed to upgrade the offense last season, instead bogged it down and will have to hit to play. Luis Hernandez will need to hold his own at the plate to be an everyday replacement for Tejada, and Penn will need to bury questions about his work ethic and durability to get another shot in the rotation. But the choice here is Cabrera, who is coming off a season in which he lost 18 games and his ERA rose for the second straight year. Cabrera, viewed as a future ace two years ago, is 26 years old, and the Orioles' patience is understandably running out.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com


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