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Now that we've gotten our fascination with the Evil Empires out of our system, let's have a peek at the:

Baltimore Orioles (27-27; 29-25 Pythagorean)

The Boys in Orange are a better baseball team than you've been led to believe by the fact that I believe this is the first time anyone has written anything about them in four years. They're sitting squarely at .500 and there's little reason to think they won't be able to stay there; and I daresay they might even be able to entertain dreams of finishing ahead of the Yankees this year. What's that? Playoffs? Playoffs? No, no; this is the Orioles.

The Orioles are here because of their pitchers, several of whom appear to have drunk several tall glasses of Mazzone Juice (now with extra vitamins and side throwing sessions!) The O's pitcher you're most likely to have heard of this year is Erik Bedard, who finally went out on EBay and got himself some consistency. Bedard easily leads the team in innings and is saving 10.42 hitters per nine innings the trouble of having to run to first base, while allowing only 3.32 hitters per nine the opportunity to stroll there without a care in the world.

But that's not the big story. The big story is – get this, man – Steve freakin' Trachsel. Yes, THAT Steve Trachsel, the Human Souvenir Machine that haunted Shea Stadium for a couple years. Trachsel's K:BB ratio is an astouding 2:4. No, I didn't type that wrong: it's 2:4, as in, 2 strikeouts and 4 walks per nine innings. 2 strikeouts! I could strike out two major league hitters per nine innings! No really, I could; I can throw a fastball in the mid-80s and a curveball that only works if the hitter is 100% convinced a fastball is coming, which means the only difference between me and Steve Trachsel is the latter's Proven Veteran status and seven-digit salary. It's amazing enough that Trachsel's managed to throw 66 innings in the major leagues with that kind of ratio, but what melts down my brain is the fact that he's strutting around showing off a 3.39 ERA. If there's a luckier man on earth – besides Brad Ausmus, of course – I'd love to meet him. Suffice it to say, if you're running the Baltimore Orioles, my advice to you is to trade Trachsel for something, anything, right this moment, because the 2.1 inning, 7 run performances that go on for two gruesome hours are going to come fast and furious, and when they do, no one will hear you scream.

The Mazzone Magic hardly stops there: We could consider former high-priced washout Jeremy Guthrie doing a swell enough Jimmy Key impression with his 3.02 ERA and 6:2 K/BB. Or there's Brian Burres (who?) who's striking out 8 per nine (and walking 5 per – yikes). Chris Ray's doing nicely enough as the nondescript closer for a nondescript team, but Chad Bradford's been the best reliever on the team thus far, doing his usual domo-arigato-mister-roboto-groundball-robot thing over 23 innings so far.

That's the end of the smashing success stories, but the team has also gotten reasonable work out of Adam Loewen (now gone for the year) and even Daniel Cabrera, who's been subpar but not horrendous while completely going Steve Avery all over Mazzone's sorry hide. Generally speaking, the Orioles have done a fine job of routing innings to their most effective pitchers; the only pitcher on the staff who's pitched a lot of innings and thoroughly embarrassed himself is Danys Baez. Like most second-time-around romances, the Jaret Wright fling turned out kind of ugly, but at least it ended sooner, not later.

One reason Steve Trachsel can't strike out more than two batters a game is that the Orioles are kind of cornering the market on strikeouts, what with the always K-happy Miggy! flanking such swing-like-you-mean-it luminaries as Ramon Hernandez, Melvin Mora, and Corey Patterson (and let's not talk about Jay Gibbons).

I'm going to be honest here: The Orioles lineup is really stretching my ability to come up with words. I don't think I've ever stumbled across a more thoroughly humdrum collection of athletes. It's not a bad offense at all, really; they get on base at a fair clip, they have some power, they have a little bit of speed. It's as mediocre as mediocre gets without actually holding a McChicken sandwich in each hand. Part of this is because Miggy! is off to an especially slow start; part of it's because they continue to insist on wasting everyone's time with Jay Payton and Jay Gibbons; part of it's because Aubrey Huff spent the winter at the Nate McLouth School of Hitting (motto: “If You Can See It, You Can Pop It Up”); part of it's because Melvin Mora's two-year amnesia finally wore off and he remembered that he's supposed to suck.

The Orioles are near the top of the teams I'm optimistic about, and coming from a card-carrying hyper-cynic, that's saying something. Well... optimistic isn't the right word, because I have total confidence that Team Angelos will parlay their currently quite significant stock of talent into several more fourth-place finishes in its never-ending quest to see whether you can own the most beautiful ballpark in the American League and host a game there without a single living soul showing up to watch it. But if I could take over any team today and be confident I can improve it immediately, the Orioles are one I wouldn't mind taking. The top-tier talent is outstanding: Miggy!, Nick Markakis (slugging .464 despite an unusually poor batting average), and the something-close-to-magnificent Brian Roberts, who is doing a very convincing Bobby Grich impression, posting yet another .400+ OBP with power and plus defense at second base. This is a guy every GM in baseball should be salivating about getting into his team's uniform.

With those guys around, plus the surprisingly good pitching (here we'll presume Mazzone Juice really does work), the Orioles have no excuse to be sitting around at .500. There are better options all over the place than Melvin Mora (.311/.414), Jay Payton (.338/.380), Corey Patterson (.280/.370), and especially Paul Bako (.309/.328) and Jay Gibbons (.259/.338!). Find just a couple guys capable of holding down a corner position and hitting .340/.400, which isn't that difficult, and you can vault the Orioles into the 90 win discussion. We're not talking about Mark Teixiera and Andruw Jones here; it's more of a Craig Wilson here and a Jack Cust there kind of thing. The Orioles do play very good defense, as Trachsel and Guthrie's ERAs attest, but at some point you need to find yourself some guys that can put runs on the board, and that point for me is somewhere around a .320 OBP and down.

The window has probably already passed for the Orioles. Trachsel's going to melt down like a slice of cheese on a hot sidewalk, Guthrie and Burres and Bradford are going to slip, Kevin Millar probably isn't going to keep hitting .380/.440... with all those hot starts, if the Orioles had done something intelligent with their outfield corners, they would probably be right up at the top of the wild-card pack and within reach of the Red Sox. It's not like this is breaking news; the Orioles have demonstrated a taste for macabre corner outfielders since the Clinton Administration. If their constantly-paralyzed management had been paying enough attention to bring in even an odd Raul Ibanez or Moises Alou or two, the team may actually have been positioned to make a run this year in an AL that's not quite as strong as advertised. Alas, it's not to be. They're not the Pirates when it comes to total inability to identify talent even when it bites you on the nose, and indeed if they were in the NL Central, the Orioles would likely win the division by six or seven games. But they're in the AL East, and neglecting significant portions of your team for years and years is going to lead to many fourth-place finishes. The Orioles could win 83 or 84 games and finish third or maybe even second, but for this observer it just leaves me filling kind of unfulfilled, continuing Baltimore's ongoing legacy of being baseball's answer to the McChicken sandwich.