O's quick hits

O's quick hits

The Orioles made some strides in 2006, thanks to the continued development of several homegrown prospects. Those players represent the team's best hopes for moving forward and competing in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. New York and Boston aren't coming back to the pack -- the Orioles and Blue Jays have to go get them.

Baltimore's policy of building around the infield and a young talent-laden pitching staff will be put to the test this season, and the team's patience will be tested if the core ingredients don't prosper. The Orioles have steadily resisted efforts to pry away some of their young pitchers, but if they don't see progress, they might change direction.

Team strength: Baltimore's infield is one of the strongest in the American League, boasting three players (shortstop Miguel Tejada, second baseman Brian Roberts and third baseman Melvin Mora) who were All-Stars within the last two seasons. Tejada, a former Most Valuable Player, paces the team with his energy and everyday presence. Roberts kick-starts the offense from the leadoff spot and Mora could be primed for a bounce-back year. Aubrey Huff, Kevin Millar and Jay Gibbons will split the at-bats at first base and designated hitter.

Achilles heel: The Orioles haven't hit lefties well for the last few seasons, and their offseason additions may not help in that regard. Huff, a left-handed hitter, is adequate but not a plus bat against his fellow southpaws. Jay Payton's presence may help limit Corey Patterson's exposure against left-handers, but Roberts, Jay Gibbons and Nick Markakis will all have to improve against lefties to give the offense a chance at stepping forward.

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Top newcomer: Huff may not be a premier power bat, but he has been a fairly consistent hitter who can split time all over the diamond. The veteran can play at both the infield and outfield corners, where he'll help keep Payton, Mora and Millar fresh throughout the season. Huff has power to all fields, but the short porch in right field at Camden Yards may virtually ensure him of extending his five-season streak with 20 homers or more.

Ready to make The Leap: Adam Loewen went 6-6 in limited exposure to the big leagues in 2006, but that was before he was really prepared to make the jump. The left-hander is stronger and in better condition than he was last year, and he also has a better idea of what he needs to do to be successful. Loewen has only made 11 starts at Double-A and Triple-A -- and 19 in the Majors -- so he still has a substantial learning curve ahead of him.

On the hot seat: Millar had a solid season in 2006, and it was good enough to convince the Orioles to bring him back for another run. But if he has that same season again, there's a good chance Baltimore will cut bait and hand first base to Huff or Gibbons. Millar is one of the team's most patient hitters, but he doesn't provide the pop necessary to play first base in the AL East. If he doesn't have a big year, he may be looking at a bench role in 2008.

You can bank on: Somehow, Tejada will find a way to play every day this season. He hasn't missed a game since the 2000 season, and his streak of 1,080 consecutive games played is the seventh-longest in baseball history. If he finishes the '07 season unscathed, he'll pass three streaks and finish just 65 games short of third place. Tejada isn't just one of the modern game's great players -- he's a few great seasons from being historically relevant.

Litmus test: The Orioles don't need everything to go right -- they just need their young pitching to continue to mature. If Loewen, Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera step forward, the Orioles could make a run at their first winning record since 1997. Baltimore invested heavily in the bullpen to try to maximize their chances of having a pitching-rich environment. This year, pitching coach Leo Mazzone will get to test his staff-building ability all over again.

Games you don't want to miss: Tigers: April 9-11. The home opener brings the defending American League champions.

Yankees: June 26-28. The Yankees make their first trip to Camden Yards right before the All-Star break.

Yankees: Sept. 28-30. Will the O's have a chance to break their nine-year streak of losing records?

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.