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Once proud Orioles have hope with young talent, franchise catcher

It hurts me to write about the Orioles.

I was in Baltimore for some of the golden years. The O's would win at least 90 games every season. There was an "Oriole Way.'' They had an assembly line of Hall of Fame ballplayers from Brooks Robinson to Frank Robinson to Jim Palmer to Eddie Murray to Cal Ripken Jr. They manufactured big league managers: Earl Weaver, Jim Frey,Billy Hunter, George Bamberger, Cal Ripken Sr., Joe Altobelli and Ray Miller. They had a general manager lineage which included Paul Richards, Lee MacPhail, Harry Dalton, Frank Cashen and Hank Peters.

On and on it went. When the Colts fled to Indianapolis, Baltimore became a baseball-crazed town and the construction of Camden Yards changed the way all future ballparks were built. The Orioles were baseball's model franchise.

Today they are the "once-proud" Orioles. They are the bottom feeders of the American League East, owned and mismanaged by buffoon Peter Angelos. The Orioles have played sub-.500 baseball for 12 consecutive seasons. They've finished last in each of the last two years with records of 68-93 and 64-98, respectively. They finished 39 games behind the Yankees last year. They went 2-16 against the Red Sox. Attendance has been cut in half since 1998.

But there is hope in 2010. Help is on the way.

It starts with general manager Andy MacPhail. He was a 5-year-old kid when his dad took over as GM of the O's in 1958. Young Andy went on to win a couple of World Series as the boy wonder of the Twins, then found success with the Cubs for 12 seasons before returning to his Baltimore roots in June 2007. MacPhail set about building from the bottom and has stocked the farm system and 40-man roster with young talent. Some of the talent is still a year or two away, but the O's have hopes that they will not be a laughingstock in 2010. It's not easy chore playing in a division which has three of the top teams in baseball (Yanks, Red Sox, Rays).

It's all about the pitching, of course. The Orioles are the franchise that boasted four 20-game winners (Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson) in 1971. Last year Baltimore's starters had an ERA of 5.37, 29th in the majors and worst in the American League.

Kevin Millwood has been brought in from Texas to anchor the 2010 rotation. Millwood was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA in hitter-happy Texas last summer. His presence should take some pressure off talented young righty Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie was 10-17 with a 5.04 ERA last season and the idea is to prevent him from getting discouraged.

The back end of the rotation is sprinkled with kids Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen. How bad is Orioles luck these days? Bergesen hurt his shoulder over the winter while filming a team commercial. But he's ready to come back this week. Young gun Jake Arrieta is the best starting prospect on the farm, but he dropped from No. 67 to No. 99 among Baseball America's top prospects. MacPhail has added veteran closer Mike Gonzalez to the back of the bullpen.

The Franchise, of course, is switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters. The 6-foot-5 stud from Georgia Tech came up for 96 games last year and hit .288 with nine homers and 43 RBIs. He's still 23 years old. Orioles fans look at Wieters and see Joe Mauer.

Baltimore's lineup is not bad. Miguel Tejada is back to augment a top trio of Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Roberts is an all-star second baseman who led the majors in doubles (56) last year, but hasn't played this spring because of a herniated disc. Jones is a budding superstar who hit 19 homers and drove in 70 in 119 games in 2009.

Markakis knocked in 101 last year. Veterans Tejada (trying third base this year) and first baseman Garrett Atkins will anchor the corners while minor league prospects mature. With Nolan Reimold playing alongside Jones and Markakis, the O's have one of the best young outfields in the game. Luke Scott is a capable designated hitter and Felix Pie a fourth outfielder.

They've got a few holdovers from the golden days still in the organization. Terry Crowley is the Orioles hitting coach and Palmer, Mike Flanagan and Rick Dempsey are usually heard on broadcasts. Those guys feel the same way I feel when they watch the Orioles. They cringe, and wait for things to get better.

No one thinks the Orioles have enough to contend this year, especially in the American League East. But maybe they can finish ahead of the Blue Jays. Maybe they can win 80 games.

They need to stop the embarrassment and come back to respectability.

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