It remains one of my clearest memories of the winter meetings: A breathless Will Carroll coming up to a group of writers with the news that an MLB employee had just told him that Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero were all ready to sign contracts with the Baltimore Orioles.

While Tejada did join the Os fold that night, the other two deals fell through. The Birds eventually had to settle for Javy Lopez instead of Pudge, and Rafael Palmeiro instead of Guerrero. Not quite as sexy, but still enough to help the Orioles, who got ridiculously little production from shortstop and catcher last season:

                    2004 PECOTA                        2003 performance
                AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP                  AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Miguel Tejada  .280 .341 .472  46.1   Deivi Cruz    .250 .269 .378   1.0
Javy Lopez     .269 .323 .472  26.3   Brook Fordyce .273 .311 .371   4.4
                                      Geronimo Gil  .237 .299 .314  -2.7
Raf. Palmeiro  .255 .361 .498  28.4   Jeff Conine   .290 .338 .460  22.3

Reluctant as I am to question PECOTA, I honestly think that projection for Lopez is optimistic. While it represents a big drop-off from his big 2003 performance, it’s also a big bump from his decline years of ’01 and ’02, and basically what he hit in 2000. It’s a question of whether you see last year as a resurgence, or a fluke. I see it as Todd Hundley, circa 2000, and expect him to hit closer to .250/.300/.400. That’s still an upgrade, if a smaller one.

One of the effects of signing Palmeiro is that the Orioles have committed to Melvin Mora as their third baseman, replacing the departed Tony Batista. The Os have Luis Matos, coming off his breakthrough .303/.353/.458 season, returning to center field. Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons, both of whom were productive last year, should man the corners, in part because the Orioles have two contracts, David Segui‘s and Marty Cordova‘s, occupying space in the first base/DH mix. Along with Palmeiro, those two will keep Gibbons in right field and force Mora to the infield.

It’s not a good situation for the Orioles or Mora. He hasn’t played third base since 2000, and has just 26 career innings at the position:

Pos    Innings     FRAR
SS      1542.1       24
CF      1150.0       18
LF      1127.2       21
2B       166.0        4
RF       150.0        0
3B        26.0        1
1B         4.0        0

Mora has been playing more and more outfield the past few seasons:

Year    IF Inn.  FRAR    OF Inn.   FRAR    EqA    WARP
1999        28      1        78       0   .172     0.0
2000       825      2       113       1   .255     2.3
2001       341      8       706       9   .256     3.4
2002       391     10       875      18   .269     6.2
2003       151      2       653      10   .324     5.9

Most of Mora’s playing time at shortstop in 2002 was as an injury replacement for Mike Bordick, and last year, he was a backup to Deivi Cruz. Basically, he’s been an outfielder for two years, not an infielder. In that time, his performance at the plate has improved and he’s been a very good defensive outfielder. To take that player and ask him to virtually do on-the-job training at third base–while at the same time giving him a three-year, $10.5-million contract–seems like an unnecessary risk.

The Orioles have a couple of paths out of this situation, but the most likely one involves making Segui and Cordova disappear. The two will make $6 million and $3.5 million respectively, which just adds to the problem they create. Segui’s contract is insured, though, so it’s possible that he will be asked to make like Pat Meares in 2004. Cordova’s recovery from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow has been slow, and there’s a chance he’ll retire if he can’t make the Opening Day roster. Ridding themselves of these two would allow Mora to return to the outfield and Gibbons to split first base and DH with Palmeiro.

Here’s the part I really like. If Mora plays right field, it frees the Orioles to give Jose Bautista a chance to win the third-base job. Bautista, a Rule 5 draft pick out of–where else?–the Pirates’ organization, was one of the Bucs’ top prospects just one year ago. He hit .301/.402/.470 in the Sally League in ’02, although he was a little old (21) for the circuit. His 2003 season was truncated when he went Doyle Alexander on a trash can, breaking his hand in the process. The Pirates gambled that his lack of experience above A-ball would scare teams off, but the Orioles–with no viable third-base options in the system–took a chance.

Bautista may not be ready for an everyday job in the major leagues. The rise from the Carolina League, where he hit .242/.359/.424 last year, and the American League is enough to give the best prospects the bends. But if you’re the Orioles, and you can have David Segui, Marty Cordova or Jose Bautista, isn’t it worth creating the space for a player who actually could have an impact beyond 2004?

I can analyze the Orioles’ lineup all day, but the real problem they face in competing with the Yankees and Red Sox is finding 11 pitchers. Even after signing Sidney Ponson, they have a rotation with more question marks than Frank Gorshin’s wardrobe, Once again, PECOTAs:

                     IP     ERA     VORP
Sidney Ponson     184.0    4.31     24.8
John Stephens     104.0    4.38     15.6
Kurt Ainsworth    114.0    4.52     13.2
Rodrigo Lopez     119.0    4.63     12.8
Eric DuBose        98.0    4.45     12.7
Matt Riley         75.0    4.91      6.5
Omar Daal         102.0    5.24      4.7

PECOTA’s lack of enthusiasm for these guys is demonstrated in the innings-pitched numbers. It can’t find anyone with enough of a track record or enough projected performance to predict that anyone other than Ponson is going to pitch a full season. It’s probably not sensible to expect Rodrigo Lopez or Omar Daal to do much better than what they’ve done. The Orioles need John Stephens to stay on the Bob Tewksbury career path, Kurt Ainsworth to bounce back from a broken shoulder blade, and Matt Riley to continue to improve his command while displaying the same developing maturity that impressed the organization over the past two years.

You can craft a scenario in which the Orioles have above-average pitching in 2004. It’s just that everything is going to have to go right, from young pitchers developing to Ponson staying at the level he reached last year, to someone like Lopez or Daal stepping up with 175 good innings. Even then, the rotation is leaving games to a mediocre bullpen, with just one pitcher, B.J. Ryan, who finished last season with an ERA under 4.38. It’s not a contender’s pitching staff, even supported by an offense that could be up around 830 runs.

Like the Blue Jays, what the Orioles need is radical realignment. It’s not hard to see this team winning the AL Central, especially given that they’d swap 30 games with the Yankees and Red Sox for 30 with the Tigers and Indians. In the AL East, though, being pretty good isn’t good enough. Unless there’s a confluence of older players not aging and younger ones getting better in a hurry, a seventh consecutive fourth-place finish seem like the most likely outcome.