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If I had been born and raised in Maryland instead of just living here the past twelve years, I’d be rooting for the team I’m writing a preview of: the Baltimore Orioles.

Twelve straight losing seasons has taken a hit on the once-proud franchise and its fan base. With their glorious stadium opening in 1992, things looked promising with their marquee shortstop-turned-3B superstar Cal Ripken, the Orioles were the team to beat in the AL East in the early 1990s — until Peter Angelos bought the team. Since then, nothing has gone right except for the ability for the team to get high draft picks, and it will pay off dividends this season.

Offense: Angelos finally did something decent and brought in Andy MacPhail to clean up the franchise, and in the years since, I’ve seen the Orioles become a decent team to watch every time I visit Camden Yards. There are several stars on the team to keep an eye out for. The first is Adam Jones. Jones has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. If he stays healthy in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. Markakis had a stellar 2008. 2009 was an all-around down year for him. It’s unlikely Markakis will have an off season again, so he should anchor the middle of the lineup.

The star of the future is catcher Matt Wieters. When drafted in 2007, he didn’t play until 2008 and that season earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Last but not least, Luke Scott is another player to watch. He will primarily fit into the DH role while serving as a back-up outfielder.

Pitching: Admittedly, the pitching rotation is pretty poor for the Orioles, with such young arms. To combat that, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood to give them a veteran presence on the mound and in the clubhouse. The O’s have Jeremy Guthrie right behind Millwood to offer a decent 1-2 punch. There are other pitchers to keep an eye on.

One is Brad Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes,  made great strides in 2008, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Brad Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and is working on improving his changeup.

The bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Chris Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues.

Prediction: They are at least better than the Blue Jays, but not ready to contend yet. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their # 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011. As for 2010, unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well.

81-83, Fourth Place

This week Trevor and I will be doing team by team previews for the AL East and will do divisional previews for the AL Central and AL West.

Tonight I’ll preview one of the teams that will content for the divisional crown — the Rays.

Offense: The Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 last year. The 803 total runs they scored isn’t as high as the Yankees but their lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.

Tampa Bay is led largely by All-Star 3B Evan Longoria, along with Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist, who emerged in a good way last year. Finally, entering into his final season before what’s sure to be a bidding war that includes the Yankees, CF Carl Crawford rounds up the potent lineup for the Rays.

Defense: Tampa’s defense is one of the best in the AL, if not the majors. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Who can’t forget Crawford’s catch in the All Star game last year in St. Louis?

Pitching: The Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010.

The biggest move of Tampa’s offseason was landing a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen, manager Joe Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities last season. This season they will rank on top with the Yankees and Red Sox and their 9th inning is pretty much locked up now.

Outlook: The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they can compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd.

Third place, 92-70.

Yankees @ Red Sox 8:05 pm Sunday

The path to #28 begins!

Phil Hughes, last season’s long reliever in the bullpen, was named the Yankees fifth starter Thursday beating out Joba Chamberlain and others for the coveted last spot in the Yankee rotation.  Hughes will most likely have an innings limit this year, much like Joba had last year.  Some writers are speculating the limit could be around 170 innings, meaning we should see Joba or others make some starts toward the end of the season.

Hughes also beat out Sergio Mitre, Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin.  I forecast Mitre to be sent to AAA to stay warm as an injury replacement starter and Aceves back in the Yankee bullpen.  Gaudin was released outright this week after not earning the spot in the rotation and the Yankees felt paying him $2.95 million to pitch in Scranton was too much.  Since his contract was not guaranteed, it was a smart decision for the Yankees and I could definitly see Gaudin catching on strong elsewhere.

One other notable pitching story comes from Boston, the Red Sox manager Terry Francona confirmed that Daisuke Matsuzaka will not be ready to pitch for the Sox until a couple weeks into the season.  However, Tim Wakefield, the aging knuckleballer has most definitely earned his spot in the rotation.  Wakefield will apparently pitch until he gets so old his arm falls off.

So, it’s really done.

Each tier of the upper deck of the old Yankees Stadium has come down in demolition. I almost don’t want to believe it, and I don’t want to see the photos or the video.

Being 280 miles away from the Bronx doesn’t help either.

Greg Cohen’s site Sliding into Home has photos and a video of what happened today.

I don’t like this…

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