04/03/2004 3:20 PM ET
Gibbons part of slugging quartet
O's outfielder will hit behind Tejada, Palmeiro, Lopez
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
BALTIMORE -- Last season, 26-year-old Jay Gibbons was the Orioles' leading returning home run hitter with 28. The Orioles were a team that lacked power, and Gibbons was their version of Sammy Sosa.
|Jay Gibbons was 'ecstatic' when he heard of the O's offseason signings. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Now, Gibbons is a lucky man: He gets the rare opportunity to hit behind three splendid sluggers who hit for power and average.
Several baseball insiders have said Gibbons should flourish while hitting sixth in the batting order because pitchers will be forced to challenge him after dealing with the Big Three.
"I agree with them," Gibbons said. "I should do pretty well hitting behind these guys. I don't mind those guys being here. It's good to have some superstars in this clubhouse who can show the younger guys how to get to the top."
Who are the Big Three? They are Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez, who signed with Baltimore within a span of a month this offseason, their goal being the revitalization of a once-proud franchise that prided itself on division titles and winning records.
The Orioles have endured six consecutive losing seasons and six consecutive fourth-place finishes in the American League East. Baltimore has watched the Yankees and the Red Sox consistently add All-Star players and turn the division into an annual two-team race. Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez could help the O's make it a three-team run for the title.
The trio combined for 108 home runs last season. The Orioles hit 152 home runs in 2003.
Tejada is a former AL MVP who hit a career-high 34 home runs in 2002. He signed a six-year, $72 million contract in December, the biggest contract in team history. At only 27 years old, Tejada is considered one of the league's top shortstops, turning the elite group of shortstops -- Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra -- into a foursome. Given his tremendous power and the launching pad Camden Yards becomes during the hot summer, Tejada could make a run at 40 homers.
"I don't want to put pressure on anyone, but Miguel is a great player," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "He hits the ball so hard. The only thing I have to watch for with him is keeping him fresh because he likes to play every day. But he doesn't hit the ball, he attacks the ball."
Palmeiro could be one of the best power hitters of his generation. Last May, he belted his 500th career home run and now has 528 in a glorious 15-year career. After the Rangers decided to go young, Palmeiro became a free agent and returned to Baltimore on a one-year contract. He has hit at least 38 home runs for the past nine seasons and has at least 43 in four of the past six years. His sweet left-handed stroke remains one of the most powerful in baseball.
"I have hit in some great lineups before, and this could be on that list," Palmeiro said. "Miguel is just multitalented, and Javy can just plain hit. So it should be a fun season. We should give a lot of teams trouble."
Lopez is coming off a 43-homer season, the most for a catcher in Major League history. He signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract with the Orioles and already could be the best-hitting catcher in team history. Lopez's biggest obstacle this season could be his health. Mazzilli will make sure to preserve Lopez by moving him to designated hitter for 30 to 40 games.
Lopez has had a sparkling spring, hitting fifth in the order behind Tejada and Palmeiro, and thinks the lineup's potential is scary.
"It feels good just to see a lot of guys in scoring position, a lot of guys on base every time I go to bat," he said. "It's great. There are always men on base, [you] always have a chance to get RBIs. We can be very good because whenever I won't be able to drive in the runs, Jay will pick me up. That's what he's been doing all Spring Training."
Gibbons could be the wild card in the order. Last season, his home run production dropped as more pitchers opted to avoid pitching to him because he was one of the team's lone power threats.
"How could I not improve with those guys hitting in front of me, with them being on base all the time?" Gibbons said. "The end of the year last year I was painfully reminded how rough it could be [when you don't have protection around you]. I was ecstatic when I heard all the signings happening."
So the Orioles should pile up more than the 743 runs they had in 2003. This new era should be dominated by offense and high-scoring games. Mazzilli's club will rely on these heavy hitters to support a young but talented pitching staff.
Baseball in Baltimore is no longer stale and predictable. The Big Three -- make that The Big Four -- should be quite entertaining.
"I know that ... everybody in the order can hit the ball out of the ballpark and can do a lot of things," Mazzilli said. "I look at my top three, middle three and bottom three, and I don't feel uncomfortable at any time in the lineup. It should be fun to watch all season."
Gary Washburn is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.