Tejada and Roberts headline O's middle infield
BALTIMORE -- As recently as two years ago, Baltimore's middle infield was so good it started for the American League at the All-Star Game. That may or may not happen again, but one thing is certain: Shortstop Miguel Tejada and second baseman Brian Roberts are still among the Orioles' most important and dependable regulars.
Tejada, in fact, is still one of the game's most impressive talents. The four-time All-Star has posted three of his top four seasons in every major rate statistic -- batting average, on-base percentage and slugging -- since joining the Orioles as a free agent three seasons ago. Last year, he set a career high and franchise record for hits (214).
The former American League Most Valuable Player also has another impressive statistical accomplishment. Tejada has played in 1,080 consecutive games, which stands as the seventh-longest streak in the history of the game. If Tejada plays through 2007 unscathed, he'll pass three more players and start 2008 just 65 games away from passing another.
And at this point, there's no reason to get him out of the lineup -- even for a breather. Tejada batted .350 after the All-Star break last season, cruising through the finish line. In three seasons as an Oriole, Tejada has amassed 616 hits, 84 home runs, 348 RBIs and 295 runs -- all while playing the most difficult defensive position.
Perhaps even more reassuring to the Orioles is their shortstop's state of mind. There are no talks of trade demands surrounding Tejada, and he'll report to Spring Training without any controversy hanging over his head. It's enough to make Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo giddy, if, in fact, he was inclined to admit such things.
"I met with the strength and conditioning coach about three hours one night," Perlozzo said at the Winter Meetings in December. "I asked him to keep me updated on his players he's seeing. And he has gone over to see Miguel, and Miguel has a trainer and has been working out regularly. And he was pleased. So that's good news."
Roberts, on the other hand, has had reason to be upset. The second baseman and former All-Star spent last winter working back from a catastrophic injury to his left elbow, and he spent all season proving that he's physically sound. Then, right as he was settling in to train for the 2007 season, he heard his name in trade rumors.
The Orioles allegedly got close to sending Roberts to the Braves, only to pull back at the last possible moment. Now they're trying to sign the switch-hitter to a multiyear deal which may take him past his first shot at free agency. Roberts, Baltimore's leadoff man, may elect to sign a short-term deal and test the market.
"We weren't really shopping anybody," Perlozzo said regarding Roberts. "We've had teams come in and ask us about our guy, and usually, up to this point in time, we're the ones that have been making proposals.
"Now, things are becoming messy. You do the drill. You listen. But my philosophy is if we trade anybody on our team and it makes you better, then you've got to listen to them. No matter who it is."
At any rate, Roberts now appears to be off the market. The leadoff man batted .296 with little or no power in the first half of 2006, but he came back after the All-Star break and hit nine of his 10 home runs. Roberts also stole 36 bases and was caught just seven times, adding another element to the top of Baltimore's lineup.
Roberts has never slugged within 100 points of his breakout season (.515 in 2005) -- and that includes all of his full-season stops in the Minors. He came close last year with a .410 slugging percentage and may finally be expected to get even closer in '07 -- but he can't be expected to repeat the numbers that made him an All-Star.
Baltimore worked hard on providing productive infield reserves for the 2007 season. Veteran utilityman Chris Gomez will be back, thanks to a productive final month in 2006. Gomez missed two months with a broken bone in his right hand and had just 14 hits when September started, but he batted .437 (31-for-71) to finish strong.
Gomez will have competition from Brandon Fahey, who was overexposed as a rookie last season, and Freddie Bynum, who was acquired from the Cubs in an offseason trade. Fahey is a smooth defender with a bat who may not play in the Majors, and Bynum is a fleet-footed infielder and outfielder with a smattering of power.
Gomez will likely outlast both of them to earn the utility job, but Bynum could still stick on the roster as the 25th man. It all depends on whether the Orioles decide they want pinch-hitting power or positional flexibility in their final reserve. Either way, Baltimore is sure to be heavily dependent on its middle infield again in 2007.
Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan said some fairly interesting things recently, right after Baltimore signed Aubrey Huff to bat behind Tejada.
"We don't know how good we are at this point. We think we've improved ourselves, certainly, on paper," Flanagan said on Jan. 3. "But we're counting on improvement from the players we have. We expect our rotation to be better, [and] we expect the bullpen to be better. Once those things start to work and jell, it can take off.
"We're optimistic. I don't think we have a clear handle on how good the club is. We just know it's much improved."