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August 28, 2008: How Long Can Aging Heroes Keep Slugging?

After the Orioles became an offensive juggernaut during the second half of the season, many fans began to believe that if the club can find pitching in 2009, it may have a chance to turn a corner. But can the O's maintain this quality of run production into next season?

Until recently, much of the offensive success was based on the season that Aubrey Huff has had so far. With power and an average over .300, he has been the steady presence the middle of the lineup needed. 

But the offensive surge of late has come from more than just Huff's bat.

Since the All-Star break, Melvin Mora has been the hottest player in the American League. Having driven in more runs in the last month than any player in the AL, he has shown he can still be a significant force. 

While tending to be streaky, newcomer Luke Scott has done a solid job replacing the power production that the franchise lost when it traded shortstop Miguel Tejada.  Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have also done their parts. Their ability at the top of the lineup to get on base and set the table has proven to be invaluable. Before getting injured, rookie Adam Jones had shown a great deal of maturity at the plate and was beginning to produce.

The Orioles lineup has risen to third in the AL in runs scored in a short period of time. This team has caught lightning in a bottle and is using it to elevate ERAs in the AL to lofty heights. 

There are many reasons to believe that high-volume scoring is more an aberration than the norm. 

With the exception of Jones and Scott, much of this team’s lineup was in place last season with Tejada, and much of it extends into earlier years. The Orioles showed no signs of this prolific scoring in past seasons. 

Many fans are ready to name Huff the team's Most Valuable Player this season. But what led to his return to the productive imposing player he showed himself capable of being in Tampa? It could be directly linked to the major audio faux pas he committed in the offseason. The possibility of being the most booed Oriole at Camden Yards since Rafael Palmeiro couldn't have been appealing. 

If this is the case, one might question if the drive, focus and interest will be present in the coming winter to motivate Huff to repeat his 2008 performance. He cleared waivers, and there seemed to be plenty of teams that would benefit from his bat down the stretch. But those teams are scared to pull the trigger. If Huff reverts back to the middle-of-the-road player he had become in the previous three seasons, the $8 million remaining on his contract could quickly become an albatross. 

Many of the same questions could be asked about Mora. Since 2006, the third baseman's numbers had also been declining. It was the case this year until June, but Mora seems to have discovered the fountain of youth. Again, it is hard to ignore recent trends and believe that he can ride this hot streak into the 2009 season. 

Mora will be 37 next season, an age at which most players are expected to begin their declines. It would be shortsighted to expect continued production next year. 

Markakis and Roberts are the players who should continue to produce at high levels at this point. While Markakis is going nowhere, a keep-him-or-trade-him debate continues to circle Roberts. Some argue he is the engine of the offense, that without him the Orioles would be without a significant sparkplug at the top of the lineup. 

Then comes the uncertainty of the young players who will be expected to fill slots on  next season’s club. If Jones does not return to the lineup this season, he will lose significant time for growth. It is hard to gauge how young players will rebound from setbacks. This will be a test of character. 

Once the expected loss of a player like Jay Payton is taken into account, the Orioles will be asking a lot from potential replacements Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimold.  Of course, there is the anticipated arrival of young phenom catcher Matt Wieters. While everyone knows of the legendary skills he is showing this season in the minors, magical  numbers do not always translate favorably to the big leagues. 

And of course, the club still is searching for a candidate for shortstop of the future. While Juan Castro has stabilized the position defensively, his age could leave him out of the running. 

While the organization concentrates on the continued improvement of pitching, in coming months the front office needs to be aware that questions will remain on the offensive side of the ball, despite the epic performances seen in this season's second half.

Allen V. McCallum Jr. is a baseball analyst for 1570 AM, WNST.

Issue 3.35: August 28, 2008