The Orioles made another free-agent signing this week, this time actually addressing a need. By picking up Aubrey Huff on a three-year contract, the Orioles attempted to improve on the atrocious performance they’ve been getting from their corner slots the past few seasons.

Huff comes with some risk. At 30, he’s definitely past his prime, and his inability to sustain his age 25-26 peak-when he slugged .539 over nearly 1100 at-bats-remains one of the mysteries of recent seasons. After 2003, Huff looked prepared to be an All-Star caliber hitter for years to come; instead, he lost power for two seasons before bouncing back a bit in ’06. I suppose there’s an interesting study to be done in looking at players’ performances before and after 2004, but that’s for another day. I snuck a peak at his PECOTA-remember, Baseball Prospectus 2007 is coming soon!-and it listed a .278/.347/.471 line in Houston for a .275 EqA and a 17.8 VORP. That’s not an impressive VORP, and that’s with him projected as a third baseman.

Huff is a poor defensive player wherever you slot him, so minimizing his impact while wearing a glove is important. The Orioles have some contracts in left field (Jay Payton) and at third base (Melvin Mora), and a good player (Nick Markakis) in right field, so Huff will be restricted to first base and DH for the most part. This makes that .275 less valuable; a .275 EqA from your first baseman or DH in the AL in 2007 means you’re losing ground, which has been the Orioles’ problem the last few years. Kevin Millar and Jay Gibbons just don’t provide enough offense, and at first glance, Huff seems to exacerbate that problem.

I’m a bit more optimistic. Huff’s terrible 2005 campaign is anomalous, and I think it’s affecting his projection. I suspect his lefty power will play reasonably well in Camden Yards (and in 36 road games in the AL East), and he won’t cost runs defensively. He’ll help balance the Orioles’ lineup-in fact, he could give them a difficult one to match up against-which has tactical value. He could also provide options for Sam Perlozzo if the need arises to get Payton, Mora or Corey Patterson out of the lineup.

As with any move made by the “other three” in the AL East, though, you have to wonder if there’s any reason to bother. Since their last division title in 1997, the Orioles’ high-water mark is 79 wins, and they’ve been relevant for about three months-the first half of 2005-in nine years. Their farm system went through a long fallow period, one that’s just ending now, and they made a series of decisions geared towards the short term that didn’t advance the cause one bit. Amidst all that, they also made one the top free-agent signings in the FA era, picking up Miguel Tejada in a depressed market for six years and $72 million. Tejada has been the best player on some bad teams the past few years, and is now one of the biggest bargains in baseball. One move like that can cancel an awful lot of mid-level signings that don’t work out.

There was a lot of optimism about the Orioles heading into 2006. There was the memory of the great first half in ’05; the addition of Leo Mazzone to work with talents such as Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera; the presence of a very strong up-the-middle of Tejada and Brian Roberts, as well as additions Ramon Hernandez and Patterson. I pegged them for fourth place, but for their highest win total, 80, since ’97.

They went 73-89 and were never a factor in any race. The back end of the rotation collapsed: Rodrigo Lopez made 29 starts and posted an ERA of 5.90. Bruce Chen lost his job early and ended the year at 6.93. In-season replacements Hayden Penn and Russ Ortiz were among the worst starters in the league in limited time. Mazzone did not build an effective bullpen out of spare parts, as he had so many times with the Braves. Chris Ray was good at the back end, but neither veterans like LaTroy Hawkins nor unknowns like Sendy Rleal turned in the kind of season that had saved so many Braves’ pens over the years. No Oriole slugged .500. Despite showing every sign of visible decline, Melvin Mora was given a three-year contract extension at midseason. Tejada played very poorly in the second half and was accused of dogging it.

Does Aubrey Huff correct all that? Do three middle-relief signings make a difference? Does any of this matter when two teams in the division have invested close to $350 million in the 2007 season, counting non-payroll player expenditures?

The Orioles can’t do anything about the Yankees and Red Sox until April, but right now, this does look like a team that, in a normal context, would be considered a sleeper. Bedard and Cabrera return to front a rotation that should be much more stable and effective than it was last year. While the strategy of three-year deals for relievers is generally cringeworthy, the players the Orioles acquired do make the team’s bullpen better in ’07. In particular, adding Jamie Walker-who I predict will appear in 30 of the team’s 38 games against the Yankee and Red Sox-makes them more competitive within the division.

Here’s one possible lineup, as well as the rest of the 2007 Orioles roster:

Roberts 2B
Markakis RF
Tejada SS
Huff 1B
Hernandez C
Gibbons DH
Payton LF
Patterson CF
Mora 3B

Bench : Paul Bako, Chris Gomez, Brandon Fahey, Adam Stern, Jeff Fiorentino

Rotation: Erik Bedard, Kris Benson, Daniel Cabrera, Jaret Wright, Adam Loewen, Hayden Penn

Bullpen: Chris Ray, Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford

That bench is pretty bad-Fahey doesn’t belong on a roster, for one-but the lineup should be good for 820 runs thanks to high OBPs in the 1-3 spots, the rotation has both upside and innings guys, and the bullpen works. Walker and Bradford are as effective a tactical pairing as you can have, which should help the O’s avoid some of the seventh-inning blowups that plagued them last year, especially inside the division. While Baez has generally been overrated and is certainly overpaid, he keeps the ball in the park and has an above-average strikeout rate. An outfield of Payton, Patterson and Markakis should be one of the better defensive trios in the league.

In another context, the 2007 Orioles would look like a wild-card contender. They play in a very tough division, however, and theirs may not even be the best quintet in the league. It’s entirely possible that we’re looking at the 11th or 12th best team in baseball here, and that’s a team that would normally get play as a sleeper or even a contender. I expect the Orioles to bust through the .500 barrier this season, and while that may not portend a climb to the top (the Devil Rays could lap them by 2008), it will be a welcome sight for fans that haven’t had much to enjoy in this century.

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