The 2006 Tigers continue to inspire me. That was a team you remember, even as just a dedicated baseball fan, having nothing to do with whether or not they're your team. The '98 Yankees were so dominant that they are another team that falls into that category, as well as the 2001 Mariners, and the 2001 A's, who in the second half of that regular season might have been the best team I've ever seen in my life.
The '05 Orioles are a team you remember, too, for falling apart so gloriously and on every level. One minute Erik Bedard is looking like a left-handed Greg Maddux, the next minute he's on the DL, and when he comes back, well, Greg Maddux he ain't. Rafael Palmeiro has 3,000 career hits, a lasting good impression to take out of a season that is rapidly losing its steam, and then, bam! Steroid suspension, mockery, etc. Sammy Sosa can't hit his way out of a paper bag all season and finishes on the DL, without even a proper goodbye and a "thanks for trying, guy." And to cap it all off, shithead Bubba Crosby runs Brian Roberts over. At that point, almost all we had left was Brian Roberts.
I think the 2007 Orioles could be a team to remember. But to build these movie-like teams, you need a cast. And I believe we have the makings of a good one.
Erik Bedard as The Ace Pitcher
You have to have an ace pitcher, and Bedard looks ready to me. After going 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA in 2006, Bedard could be primed to have a true breakout season in '07, and there are some good reasons to think this way.
After the All-Star break last year, Bedard posted a 3.10 ERA, and his K/9 jumped from 7.26 to 8.59. He also saw his HR allowed/9 drop to 0.41 from 0.99 in the first half of the season.
One thing Bedard does need to improve is his performance away from Camden Yards. At home, he was 9-4 with a 3.03 ERA, but on the road, 6-7 with a 4.69 ERA, quite a drastic difference. If Bedard can get his road numbers close to his home numbers, he could be an actual Cy Young contender.
If the Orioles are to make a surprise run, they'll need an ace, and Erik Bedard is by far the most likely candidate to fill the role. We've seen a small portion of a season in 2005 of Bedard pitching like a truly elite starter, and that went quite well.
If rookie Justin Verlander can do it, there's no reason that a guy with Bedard's stuff can't finally put it all together over an entire season.
Brian Roberts as The Sparkplug
The last two AL champions -- Chicago and Detroit -- have been surprises. Both were led by strong starting pitching (which we've touched on and will get further into in a moment), and both also had sparkplugs that turned it on in big moments. Some people call this "clutch," I suppose. Third basemen Brandon Inge of the Tigers and Joe Crede of the White Sox have filled this role, offensively and in the field.
The 2005 season also showed that Roberts has this ability. Two walkoff home runs against the Yankees early in the season have painted Roberts as a guy that could and should stand as a hero for a long time. The memories will always remain.
But Roberts does have some skill. Some Orioles fans may overrate him, but he is, in fact, one of the best second basemen in baseball. He's got a little pop, he's got great speed, he's solid defensively.
And Roberts just screams "sparkplug," anyway. All of his positive attributes are "sparkpluggy," he's short, he has a flair for the dramatic at the plate. Brian Bob will need to balance his 2006 splits, hopefully to hit for averages and get on base like he did prior to the All-Star break, and show the power he did afterward. If he does that, we could see a season closer to his outstanding '05 than his fairly good '06.
Miguel Tejada as The Troubled Star That Embraces a Leadership Role
Calling Miggi "troubled" might be a bit much, but he's certainly had his issues during his stay in Baltimore. After the 2005 season, our biggest offseason story was Tejada's desire to be traded, and his bashing of the front office for failing to improve the team. In the end, he wound up staying, as there wasn't a deal out there that the team felt made good sense.
Now, we have a different, more familiar Tejada on our hands. By all reports, he's anxious to win, and to do so as an Oriole. He is clearly the team's best player, an annual All-Star, and the lineup's anchor. Without Tejada, this team does not have a single legit right-handed power threat.
Tejada is in a position to become this team's leader, too. As the best player on the club and a fiery competitor, Tejada seems a natural fit for the role.
Tejada could also receive a lot of help in two areas with this: He's close with both Melvin Mora and Ramon Hernandez, both respected veterans, and he's part of a growing collective of players on the team with experience on playoff teams: Tejada, Hernandez, Chad Bradford, Steve Trachsel, Jamie Walker, Jaret Wright, Kevin Millar, and Jay Payton have all played in the postseason, and all except for Tejada have been added in the last two years. Maybe it's not by design, but the O's have collected a group of players that have the ever-important knowledge of how to win baseball games.
If Miggi can show the fire he did when he won the MVP with Oakland in 2002, he could do some special, special things this season. And I think he's just about ready to get back to being that guy.
Leo Mazzone as The Coach That Makes Things Happen
Mazzone's Atlanta staffs went to the postseason 15 years in a row, and for knowing how to win, you just can't beat that. He's also had a lot more to say this spring than he did last year, as he spent the majority of his first season with the Birds learning the pros and cons of his pitchers, and figuring out how to coach them individually.
Now, he's seeing results this spring. Bedard has been untouchable, and Cabrera's control has improved dramatically, which dates back to his return to Baltimore after minor league stints in Bowie and Ottawa last season.
Maybe he doesn't have Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz now, but there is serious talent here. Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen all have very good-to-great stuff, and he's had success in the past coaching Jaret Wright, plus he's had success with guys similar to Steve Trachsel in the past. And if all else fails, there's also Hayden Penn, whose only poor comparison to Trachsel is his lack of experience.
It's one of the mildly "sexy" picks of the spring, but with Mazzone at the helm and the collection of talented arms the O's have at their disposal, this truly could be the surprise rotation of 2007. And that doesn't even consider the upgraded bullpen, which should dramatically help the team's chances, without a bullpen blowing leads left and right.
Corey Patterson as Comic Relief That Does Some Things Well
Corey Patterson has movie star good looks, anyway. With Patterson apparently spending his spring cracking jokes and having fun with his teammates, it serves that Patterson could fill the role of Little Big League's Tucker Kain, played by Michael Papajohn. (Papajohn, incidentally, also appeared in The Babe, Mr. Baseball and For the Love of the Game.)
Kain was funny, one of the team's two jokesters -- along with reliever Bowers, played by Jonathan Silverman of Weekend at Bernie's fame, and for the Orioles, a role ably filled by newcomer Jamie Walker -- but he also made some spectacular plays in the outfield, which Patterson also has a habit of doing.
Hopefully we'll see Corey continue using his natural gifts to override his glaring weakness in the plate discipline department. Patterson has "old school" skills -- good glove, great speed, and an ability to bunt his way over to first base. He has the ability to be a superb role player, if not a superstar.
Let's not forget Nick Markakis as The Young Stud, Kevin Millar as The Veteran With a Heart of Gold, Melvin Mora as The Washed-Up(?) Former Star, and Sam Perlozzo as The Doubted Manager, who has already received great support from The Veteran With a Heart of Gold this spring for his hands-on managing.
It's far-fetched, but so were the Tigers and White Sox. Great things can happen, and sometimes great teams can fall out of the clear blue sky, even though if you look back, there was always a way to piece together a reason that it could happen. It relies on almost everything going right, but for a franchise where almost everything has gone wrong for a decade, I'm going to go ahead and say our team is due for something special. And when I look over this team's roster, and the makeup of these players, there's the fan in me that really can see this being a special ballclub.
We can win. Things are gonna change, I can feel it.