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Time right to pitch Powell deal


That Doug Melvin left a stinker of a farm system, all right. The Orioles lost three pitchers in the Rule V draft on Monday -- and still had enough depth to trade former No. 1 draft pick Jay Powell for second baseman Bret Barberie last night.

Is this a good deal? Melvin thought so. In fact, the Texas general manager said he was "disappointed" in Powell during his Orioles tenure. Club officials were more diplomatic, but it's clear Powell wasn't progressing as rapidly as they wanted.

"I don't think he threw as hard as they thought," said Melvin, the Orioles' former assistant GM. "People said he threw 90 miles an hour, but that never happened. I don't think that's a bad deal. Barberie is a good offensive player."

Equally important, the Orioles' minor-league system is so deep in right-handed pitching, the club decided it wasn't worth waiting until 1997 for Powell when he could bring an everyday player with only three years of service time in return.

Maybe Powell will turn into the next Gregg Olson -- the idea when the Orioles made him the 19th pick of the '93 draft. Or maybe he'll be nothing more than a setup man, a possibility raised by the scouting director who selected him, Gary Nickels.

Baseball America rated him the seventh-best Orioles prospect, and listed five other right-handed pitchers in the club's Top 10 -- Armando Benitez (No. 1), Jimmy Haynes (3), Rocky Coppinger (5), Brian Sackinsky (9) and Calvin Maduro (10).

Two other right-handed prospects didn't even make the trade magazine's Top 10 -- Scott Klingenbeck, the pitcher who beat Detroit in a one-shot promotion from Double- A last season; and William Percibal, the Single-A phenom who recently was added to the 40-man roster.

That roster once was devoid of quality pitching. Now, the Orioles can't protect all of their young talent. They've lost three home-grown pitchers (Jose Mercedes, Vaughn Eshelman, Francisco Saneaux) in the past two Rule V drafts. But under Syd Thrift, they're revamping their entire farm system.

The system rated No. 1 in the AL East by Baseball Weekly. The system ranked fourth among the 28 major-league teams by the Sporting News. The system that enabled the Orioles to trade Jay Powell. Five years ago, the Orioles would have viewed Powell as a cornerstone. These days, he's an expendable talent.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Powell was a closer at Mississippi State, but he relied primarily on his fastball, so the Orioles converted him into a starter. Two years later, Powell is still struggling with his breaking pitches. Nickels said the plan next season was to make him the Double-A closer.

Even then, his future would have been uncertain. The Orioles view Benitez and Brad Pennington as a potential right-left, late-inning combination. The trade is another sign of the Orioles' renewed faith in Pennington. Just last week, they refused to trade him for Pete Harnisch.

The fear, of course, is that Powell will turn out like Harnisch or Curt Schilling, pitchers the Orioles quit on too soon. Remember how comfortable the club was with its pitching depth at the time of the Glenn Davis trade? It turned out to be a mirage.

"This is always risky with a big, strapping kid like this, a young arm," said Gordon Goldsberry, the special assistant to GM Roland Hemond, and one of the Orioles' top scouts. "But right-handed pitching is one of our strengths. We're trying to win a pennant. Sometimes, you have to do it."

Especially when the return is the switch-hitting Barberie, who batted .319 against left-handed pitching last season and .292 against right-handers. Barberie lacks the speed of Mark McLemore, and might be a cut below defensively, but he compensates with a hard-nosed, aggressive style.

McLemore hit .167 from the right side last season, then turned down a two-year offer from the Orioles at a lower base salary. How smart was that? The market will be flooded with free agents once the owners implement their new economic system, and McLemore will be left scrambling for a job.

The Orioles, meanwhile, will be left with a younger, cheaper second baseman with comparable -- if not superior -- ability. Nickels should be proud. Powell was the one bust among his No. 1 picks, but he was still good enough to deliver a Barberie.

"This will play out on how well Barberie plays," Nickels said. "If he plays well for us, it's a successful trade, and you go on from there. It'll be a while before Powell gets to the big leagues. He's not a guy on the fast track like some of them are."

No, he was just another hard-throwing, right-hander rising through the Orioles' farm system. The farm system rebuilt by Doug Melvin. The farm system rated among the best in baseball. The farm system responsible for last night's trade.

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