Experts agree that the O's will be mighty bad but that they won't match the depths of the '88 team

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles continue to recite the mantra of a rebuilding team, whether it's done inside the brick walls of the B&O; Warehouse or the cramped offices and sun-drenched fields at their spring training home. Sometimes it's necessary to take one step backward to move two steps forward. Count on the stride being shorter in the wrong direction.

Unless a team is willing to raise its payroll through the roof, this method is the only way to go from bad to good - and this especially applies to clubs that have posted 10 straight losing seasons.

Within this logic, however, lies a disturbing question: Just how bad will it get for the 2008 Orioles?

Their cleanup hitter and major run producer, shortstop Miguel Tejada, was traded to the Houston Astros in December. No. 1 starter Erik Bedard, the homegrown ace, followed him out the door last month in a long-anticipated deal with the Seattle Mariners. A few players and segments of management publicly insist they're not conceding anything this season, but perceived contenders don't strip away such vital parts, and certainly not in a division as unforgiving and treacherous as the American League East.

"I'm hearing they could be pretty bad, one of the worst," said SI.com's Jon Heyman. "I guess the specific concern is if they have somebody ready to play shortstop. But I think they did the right thing rebuilding instead of perpetuating mediocrity for another decade. At least they gave themselves a chance to be good in two or three years. But no team can expect to be good when you trade your marquee player and top starter. I think they're definitely a threat to lose 100 games. It's not going to be pretty this year."

For the Orioles to truly hit bottom, they'll have to pass the 1988 team on the way down.

Twenty years ago, the Orioles posted a franchise-worst 54-107 record and finished 34 1/2 games out of first place. Their five primary starting pitchers - Mike Boddicker, Jeff Ballard, Jose Bautista, Jay Tibbs and Oswaldo Peraza - were a combined 29-61. An offense built around veterans Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Fred Lynn and Mickey Tettleton produced a team batting average of .238. Rene Gonzales and Rick Schu made most of the starts at third base. In one season, Larry Sheets' average and home runs dropped from .316 and 31 to .230 and 10.

An 0-6 start cost manager Cal Ripken Sr. his job. Fifteen more losses in a row made the Orioles a national story. Neither indignity is expected in 2008.

"I see the Orioles finishing last in the AL East, but I don't see a historically bad team," said Baseball America's Jim Callis. "Seems like we all thought the Nationals would be historically bad last year, and they wound up winning 73 games. The Orioles may make a run at 100 losses, but I don't see them making a run at the 1962 Mets or 1988 Orioles. They do have a good shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, though."

Scott McGregor made four starts in 1988 before being released. He also pitched on the '87 team that went 67-95 and lost 42 of its last 56 games. He knows hard times, but he was encouraged by the talent and camaraderie in camp this spring.

"I like what I saw," said McGregor, the pitching coach at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. "It's a nice blend of young arms and veterans. If they jell, anything can happen."

Buck Martinez, a former Toronto Blue Jays manager and now an analyst for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and TBS, said: "I think the pitching is really going to be a concern. The fact that they've been unable to throw strikes in the past, you don't know how you're going to get through games. If you're in your bullpen every night in the fifth and sixth inning, the bullpen, no matter how competent you think they are, will be dead. When you're behind every night in the early innings, there's little that looks encouraging."

A scout from another organization predicted that the Orioles will lose 100 games but that they won't be the worst team in franchise history. The major drawbacks include a rotation that's missing a true No. 1 or 2 starter, a lineup that's void of a prototypical cleanup hitter - leaving No. 3 hitter Nick Markakis vulnerable - offensively challenged shortstop candidates and a lack of overall depth.

"It could potentially get very ugly," the scout said. "You don't have a very good offensive club. You're going to struggle to score runs. The defense is just OK. If [Adam] Loewen is healthy and [Daniel] Cabrera and [Jeremy] Guthrie do well, that's not too bad of a rotation. The bullpen is improved. But if the pitching really struggles, that could be a very scary situation. They are basically starting from scratch here, and you still have a lot of dead wood on the roster. ...

"The thing that is going to destroy them is that division. ... You have to play the Yankees, Red Sox, Tampa Bay and Toronto. They just don't have enough offense to compete with those teams."

The national media seem to agree that team president Andy MacPhail had to begin tearing down a club that no longer could be patched up.

"I don't think they will be historically bad, and frankly I don't think it matters whether they lose 90 games, 100 or 110. They are finally going in the right direction," said Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. "Their entire goal right now should be to collect as many young players as possible, then build back up again."

McGregor said: "On paper, it could look pretty bad, but it looked bad in '89 and they were in it until the end. If these guys are consistent and let things happen, there could be some magic there."

MacPhail's handiwork is no illusion. The Tejada and Bedard trades that netted 10 players in return were real, as are the prolonged discussions with the Chicago Cubs about second baseman Brian Roberts. This is what rebuilding looks like. The view isn't always appealing up close.

"They could be one of the worst teams in the league, but by design, and I'm OK with that," said ESPN.com's Keith Law. "That's better than being a fake contender like they have been."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Jeff Zrebiec and Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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