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Orioles minimally improved, if that

It might be some sort of record. According to ESPN.com, at this moment the Baltimore Orioles roster includes no fewer than four designated hitters: Marty Cordova, Jack Cust, Rafael Palmeiro, and David Segui.

Granted, one of them -- Palmeiro or Segui, probably -- will wind up playing first base (the roster doesn't list even one first baseman). But still, that's a lot of DHs, especially considering that three of them (Palmeiro being the lone exception) don't actually hit all that much.

What do I mean? Here are Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections for all four Oriole DHs, along with where their OPS's would have ranked (among qualifiers) in the American League last season:

'04 OPS '03 Rank
Cordova 744 61/80
J Cust 795 43/80
Segui 715 68/80
Palmeiro 859 25/80

There was a time, roughly 30 years ago, when everybody thought the DH slot would be occupied by two sorts of players: over-the-hill stars like Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda, and younger, glove-challenged players like Ron Blomberg. Plenty of DHs have fallen into one of those categories, but not nearly enough to go around.

And as it turns out, most players who do fall into one of those categories aren't good enough to be in the lineup every day, anyway (when you get a minute, look up Killebrew's last few seasons). If they're old, they're (usually) too old to hit, and if they can't play defense, they're (usually) not athletic enough to hit. Or they just don't want to DH, as has traditionally been the case with a number of great-hitting first basemen. So we're left with a bunch of DHs who don't really do justice to the "position."

Getting back to the Orioles, I'm not nearly as bullish on them as many others seem to be. Yes, Miguel Tejada is an excellent player. But Javy Lopez is going to regress to his previous (i.e. non-2003) self, and Rafael Palmeiro declined last season and, at 39, isn't likely to do anything but continue to decline. Oh, and did I mention the pitching? That's OK, because neither have the Orioles. Yes, they'll be better this season. Better enough to finish a strong fourth rather than a distant fourth.

Something similar might, of course, be said about most of the other AL East teams, too. So here's something else about the Red Sox: They're making just one real change to the lineup, and it's a doozy. At second base, the Sox are supposedly going to mix in Pokey Reese (no hit, great field) with Mark Bellhorn (some hit, less field).

One theory (of sorts) is that Reese will play primarily when sinker-ball specialist Derek Lowe is pitching, leaving 400-some plate appearances for Bellhorn. It's a good plan, I think, but not an easy one to implement. When you've got two players for one position, it's awfully tempting to overreact when one of them hits a dry patch or a hot stretch.

Bellhorn proved in 2002 that he's perfectly capable of hitting 25 home runs, and then in 2003 he proved that he's perfectly capable of hitting five home runs. He's never going to be a big batting-average guy, but if he plays every day he's a good bet for a .350 on-base percentage, and that's a number the Red Sox brain trust can appreciate. Even last year, when Bellhorn lost two jobs, his OBP was .353; the problem was his slugging percentage, which at .293 was lower -- a lot lower, actually -- than Neifi Perez's.

Still, with Bellhorn and Reese you know approximately what you're getting. And the challenge in 2004 will be sticking with that knowledge until there's a truly good reason not to.

That was a challenge for the White Sox in 2003, and for all the things that went wrong, at least management didn't do anything stupid with Paul Konerko or Joe Crede. Both got off to horrendous starts, but the Sox stuck with them -- granted, there weren't any viable replacements aboard -- and both hit in the second half of the season like we all knew they could.

Here are the OPS's for Konerko and Crede, before and after the 2003 All-Star Game:

Before After
Konerko 567 853
Crede 625 892

(Remember, OPS is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, so you can probably guess that 567 and 625 aren't real good). What happens before the All-Star break does count, and when predicting the future we can't just assume that those three months don't mean anything. But if Konerko and Crede both hit like they can for a whole season, the White Sox have a good chance to score more runs than anybody else in the division (preventing them is a whole 'nother thing).

The Cubs aren't perfect. There, I said it. They're pretty damn good, though. I guess the worst you can say about the Cubs is that they do have some question marks. In left field, Moises Alou is closing in on 38 and has always had problems staying healthy. In center field, Corey Patterson has yet to play well in the majors for more than half a season. In right field, Sammy Sosa has clearly entered the decline phase of his career (his OPS the last three years: 1.174-.993-.911). And in the infield, only Derrek Lee should elicit a high degree of confidence from North Siders.

But of course the Cubs don't have to score a million runs, because their rotation is scary-good. It's fashionable in some quarter to wonder if the Cubs' rotation can withstand the rigors of the Dusty Baker Plan -- you're in the game until you get in trouble or throw 140 pitches -- but so far, so good.

Barry Larkin, who turns 40 next month, says that if 2004 goes well he might be back in 2005. Given that Larkin has played just 260 games over the last three seasons, a goes-well 2004 doesn't seem all that likely, but you have to pull for the guy. Larkin's a Hall of Fame-quality shortstop, but due to circumstance and ignorance, he'll almost certainly be consigned to the same dustbin of history that's swallowed Alan Trammell and (so far, at least) Ryne Sandberg.

What might we expect from Larkin this season? Playing time aside, not a lot. But I wanted to use Larkin to illustrate just how hard projecting performance can be.

PECOTA Shandler
OBP Slug OBP Slug
Larkin .321 .368 .340 .386
Freel .341 .400 .308 .373

No, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't make any difference who plays shortstop in 2004 for the Cincinnati Reds. But in the context of the lineup, it does make a difference, or at least it makes a difference if you believe Baseball Prospectus or Baseball Forecaster. Larkin has a clear advantage according to Shandler; Ryan Freel has a clear advantage according to Prospectus.

Shandler would argue, I suspect, that Larkin is the Reds' best option at shortstop, and figures to be their best option next year, too (there's nobody in their farm system remotely ready to play shortstop every day). At least a few of the Prospectus writers, meanwhile, would argue that even the paltry $700,000 the Reds are paying Larkin this year is too much.

Which one should we -- and the Reds, in the off-chance they're paying attention -- believe? I don't have the foggiest idea. Clearly, the massive difference in the projections for these two players suggests that Prospectus and Shandler use different underlying assumptions about both specific sorts of players (Larkin is old and injury-prone, Freel has the grand total of 159 major league at-bats). The real point is that if two well-conceived systems can arrive at such divergent answers, then there's still a lot we don't know about projecting performance.

Speaking of shortstops (well, an ex-shortstop in this case), Cleveland's Ricky Gutierrez is finally healthy and he says, "Before I got hurt, I was a pretty decent baseball player. People in Cleveland never have seen me really play."

Actually, people in Cleveland saw almost exactly how he plays in 2002, the first season of his three-year, $11.5 million contract. That season, Gutierrez (when he wasn't hurt) posted a .325 on-base percentage and he slugged .346. Gutierrez's career marks at the conclusion of that season? .341 and .354.

Yes, Gutierrez is a tad better than he's shown since joining the Indians, but it was a dumb contract when the Indians gave it to him and it's not going to get a lot better. On a happier note, it's exactly the sort of contract that virtually no team in the majors would even consider any more. And if you enjoy seeing things done intelligently, you have to think that's a good thing.

Probably nobody's noticed, but in this column and the last one, along with a few to come, I've been alphabetically trolling through ESPN.com's team clubhouse pages, and adding my own humble observations to the preseason festivities. But I really don't know what I can add to the Rockies page, wherein I just learned that 1) Shawn Chacon is pitching on the right side of the rubber, rather than the left as he used to; 2) Shawn Estes is "back on track"; and 3) in Todd Helton's six seasons with the Rockies, they haven't finished higher than fourth.

Friends, you can't make up stuff like this. I've got a great affection for many things Rocky, including the ballpark and the general manager, but there's just no getting around one obvious conclusion -- this is one screwed-up organization. Yes, I think it's partly that beautiful ballpark's fault ... but where do you go from there?

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.