I  don't know about anyone else, but about the last thing on my mind the last week or two has been baseball.

It's just been so darned cold and miserable outside, it hasn't even been on my radar.

But pitchers and catchers report for spring training in a couple of weeks and the first exhibition game is set for March 1, so it's time to start thinking about the Baltimore Orioles.

Can they break their 13-year losing streak this year? Can they do better than their 96 losses last season? Can they actually be a factor in the American League East, which is loaded with the Yankees, Red Sox, Tampa Bay and Toronto?

I'm thinking maybe, yes and no, respectively, to those three questions.

And here's why.

The O's finished last season with the second-worst record in the American League. Only Seattle was more dismal. And they did that in the most competitive division in the league. They finished 30 games behind division-winner Tampa Bay and 20 games back of Toronto, which finished fourth in the division.

In other words, it's a long way up just to advance one position in the A.L. East standings. Anything more than that is just wishful thinking.

Will the Orioles be better, at least? Barring injuries to starters -- that is just more wishful thinking, I'm sure -- they should be.

But their opening day lineup should (would, if I were making it out) look something like this: Brian Roberts, 2B; Adam Jones, CF; Nick Markakis, RF; Derrek Lee, 1B; DH (I'll comment on that in a minute); Mark Reynolds, 3B; Matt Wieters, C; J.J. Hardy, SS; and Felix Pie, LF.

The offense should be better. They should score more runs. Speed at the top and bottom. And more pop than the O's have had in quite a few seasons. They'll hit more home runs; that's almost a sure thing. But they'll strike out a lot more, too.

The DH spot is still in limbo, but only because the O's are trying to sign free agent Vladimir Guerrero. If he signs, he'll DH full time. If not, you can pencil Luke Scott into that spot.

And if Guerrero is an Oriole this season, you can expect to see Scott in left field a lot of the time to get his bat into the lineup. So if Guerrero and Scott are in the lineup at the same time, pencil in Guerrero behind Lee in the lineup and Scott right behind Reynolds. That would back Wieters and Hardy to eighth and ninth in the lineup.

From top to bottom, then, the O's would bat switch, right, left, right, right, right, left, switch and right. Or with Pie in left field, it would be switch, right, left, right, right, right, switch, right and left.

There's some decent balance there.

Defensively? Well, they'll be decent, but not world-beaters. About the same as last year, I suspect.

Pitching? Yikes. Don't look now, but it'll be the same-old, same-old. Only a year older and another year's experience, which might be a good thing for Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz, the only two double-digit winners last year (but not by much).

Nevertheless, look for Guthrie to be the ace of the staff, followed by Matusz, Brad Bergesen and two to be determined. The starting rotation, shall we say, is still in flux and very young.

The bullpen might not be so bad, but they've got to prove themselves because they were lousy last year.

Maybe this pitching staff will surprise me. But I'm not holding my breath. Given a choice, I'd rather have the Phillies' pitching staff. But who wouldn't?

The O's need some experience in their staff somewhere and, short of making a trade, there's not much worth looking at anymore among the remaining free agents. They'd almost be better off bringing Kevin Millwood back. He hasn't signed with anyone else yet.

Let me put it this way: If the Orioles get to .500 this season, I'll be a happy camper. It'll be a huge improvement. For more than that, I dare not ask.

Besides, there's always the Phillies if I want to go all wild and crazy. They'll win, too, no doubt about it.

Because the Phillies are everything the Orioles are not. They'll hit lights out, pitch lights out and play better than average defense.

Enough said.

Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch colum nist, run Thursdays. E- mail: lhicks@yorkdis patch.com.