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Oriolesfan44 12-20-2006 03:46 PM

Mazzone ready to work with bullpen
BALTIMORE -- Improved bullpen depth has led to increased serenity for Leo Mazzone, who spent his first season as the Orioles' pitching coach working with one of the league's most erratic pitching staffs. Mazzone seems thrilled by his team's foray into the free-agent market and can't wait to start the year with a new staff and a newfound sense of confidence.
In fact, Mazzone intends to get to know his new pitchers before Spring Training starts. The veteran pitching coach said he still plans on holding Camp Leo at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in the first week of February. Mazzone, contacted at last week's Winter Meetings, said he's looking forward to starting over again.

"I can't wait, because I have a feel for the lay of the land now. And with the additions we've made and the potential of our starting rotation, I'm very excited about it," he said. "It's a lot different for me this year, knowing how things work in Baltimore. I'll be more adjusted, and it should be much more comfortable for me. I'll be the first to admit that last year in Spring Training, I felt a little awkward. I didn't want to be this guy coming in and changing everything."

This year, the team's brain trust helped Mazzone swing the wrecking ball. Most of last year's relievers are gone, leaving closer Chris Ray as the only familiar name. Baltimore spent $40 million on four relievers -- former closers Danys Baez and Scott Williamson, left-handed specialist Jamie Walker and right-handed specialist Chad Bradford.

None of those additions was huge by itself, but collectively, they signal a sea change in the Baltimore bullpen. Mazzone often referred to last year's relief corps as a year-long "tryout camp," but now he knows what to expect from just about anyone he calls out of the bullpen. Knowledge, in this case, breeds confidence.

"We have a chance to have an outstanding bullpen, and the organization has done a great job in shoring that position up," Mazzone said. "A lot of them have pitched the eighth inning and closed, but don't forget, we have Chris Ray down there as the backbone of the bullpen. And we added Jaret Wright, too -- another quality starter. I think that the depth and the strength of the pitching staff should be real good.

"And I think the continued development of Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen is what all of us are counting on."

Cabrera and Loewen are Mazzone's two main projects, and he considers everyone else close to a finished product. He referred to Erik Bedard as one of the best pitchers in the American League and said that Kris Benson is "solid as a rock." If Mazzone can get Cabrera and Loewen to that point, there's no telling how much better his staff can be.

"I think that the key is getting our starters deeper to where you match up better," he said. "When we won our games last year, I think somebody said our ERA was 3.02. When we lost, it was 7.20. That's quite a gap, and you'd think in the American League that when you're winning it's 3.80 or 3.90, and when you're losing it's 5.80 or 5.90.

"In other words, we either dominated or we got blown out."

That's why the Orioles spent so much time and energy filling up their bullpen. Walker has been a solid pitcher for the last five years, but he's always been used in the same sheltered role. Don't expect that to change in Baltimore. The same thing goes for Bradford, who often faces a few right-handed batters and exits the game.

Baez doesn't have as many restrictions and will likely be used as a late-inning workhorse. Williamson is the biggest risk of them all, but he came in at the most affordable salary. The veteran has had two surgeries on his throwing elbow and continues to have problems with the joint, but he isn't expected to do most of the heavy lifting.

Instead, Williamson is part of an ensemble approach that may serve the Orioles well. Last year, Baltimore had the second-worst bullpen ERA (5.27) and rotation ERA (5.40) of any American League club. And part of the starting staff's ERA can be traced to the bullpen, which didn't work particularly well with inherited runners last season.

"That was an obvious glaring need. We didn't pitch very well out of the 'pen," said Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo at the Winter Meetings. "We were a little inexperienced, and we made a lot of auditioning type things. Some guys that we thought were going to produce a little better didn't, and so we needed to upgrade it. There was no question about it. That's just one area that I think that is glaring, and we [fixed] that, I think, pretty successfully."

Perlozzo, who's been friends with Mazzone since their shared childhood in Maryland, said he can sense a change in his pitching coach. The exasperation and resignation are gone, replaced with a familiar sense of exuberance.

"We're built the same, but different," Perlozzo said. "When my season's over, I'm like, 'OK, a couple months, go home, relax [and] enjoy your time off.' Leo's always been a guy, two days after the season, he's ready to go back.

"This season took him a little longer to get to that point, but I think he is pretty close to being there now."

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