If I had been born and raised in Maryland instead of just living here the past twelve years, I’d be rooting for the team I’m writing a preview of: the Baltimore Orioles.

Twelve straight losing seasons has taken a hit on the once-proud franchise and its fan base. With their glorious stadium opening in 1992, things looked promising with their marquee shortstop-turned-3B superstar Cal Ripken, the Orioles were the team to beat in the AL East in the early 1990s — until Peter Angelos bought the team. Since then, nothing has gone right except for the ability for the team to get high draft picks, and it will pay off dividends this season.

Offense: Angelos finally did something decent and brought in Andy MacPhail to clean up the franchise, and in the years since, I’ve seen the Orioles become a decent team to watch every time I visit Camden Yards. There are several stars on the team to keep an eye out for. The first is Adam Jones. Jones has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. If he stays healthy in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. Markakis had a stellar 2008. 2009 was an all-around down year for him. It’s unlikely Markakis will have an off season again, so he should anchor the middle of the lineup.

The star of the future is catcher Matt Wieters. When drafted in 2007, he didn’t play until 2008 and that season earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Last but not least, Luke Scott is another player to watch. He will primarily fit into the DH role while serving as a back-up outfielder.

Pitching: Admittedly, the pitching rotation is pretty poor for the Orioles, with such young arms. To combat that, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood to give them a veteran presence on the mound and in the clubhouse. The O’s have Jeremy Guthrie right behind Millwood to offer a decent 1-2 punch. There are other pitchers to keep an eye on.

One is Brad Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes,  made great strides in 2008, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Brad Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and is working on improving his changeup.

The bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Chris Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues.

Prediction: They are at least better than the Blue Jays, but not ready to contend yet. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their # 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011. As for 2010, unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well.

81-83, Fourth Place