Desperate for outfield help as spring training nears, the Orioles dipped into their improving farm system yesterday and traded two low-level minor leaguers to the Chicago Cubs for center fielder Corey Patterson.
The deal, which sent Single-A middle infielder Nate Spears and left-handed starter Carlos Perez to the Cubs, provides the Orioles with a fresh alternative to incumbent center fielder Luis Matos, who struggled at the plate and in the field last season.
"We'd like to think this guy could come in and play center field," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "If not, maybe he and Luis have great springs and we have to put them in there side by side, which is not the worst thing that could happen."
Patterson, 26, was considered a can't-miss prospect when he was drafted third overall in 1998. He made his Cubs debut in 2000 at age 21 and was having a breakout season in 2003 before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
He returned to the majors in 2004 and hit 24 homers and stole 32 bases, but his average dipped to .266 and he struck out an alarming 168 times in 631 at-bats. He regressed further last season, hitting .215 with a .254 on-base percentage, spent a month in the minors and had to deal with boos from the Wrigley Field crowd.
"I can't wait to get a new start," Patterson said in a teleconference yesterday. "Obviously, last year wasn't the best situation for me. I don't like talking about it a whole lot."
Patterson said he got into a "little rut and I know I couldn't get out of it. One day it was, 'Try this and then try that,' and I never could put anything together."
But his speed, power and defensive ability intrigued the Orioles.
"Obviously, he's coming off a down year, and normally you don't get a player that has his potential for two minor leaguers. In fact, you never do," said club vice president Jim Duquette. "Our feeling was it was a worthwhile risk for us to take."
The Orioles and Cubs first discussed Patterson last month during talks involving Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, but the Orioles weren't interested in making Patterson a key component in any Tejada deal.
The two sides neared an agreement last week that would have sent one minor leaguer to Chicago for Patterson. But once that news, first reported in The Sun, became public, a few other teams entered the bidding and the Orioles upped their offer.
According to one industry source, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry narrowed his focus to the Orioles and Washington Nationals. The Nationals, however, refused to include left-handed reliever Bill Bray, the club's 2004 first-round pick, while also picking up Patterson's full salary. Patterson, who made $2.8 million last year, is entering his second year of arbitration and is under the Orioles' control through 2007.
Although he is most comfortable playing center, Patterson said he'd play any outfield spot. It's possible he could be moved to left, but it's more likely the Orioles deal Matos, who batted .280 with four homers in 389 at-bats last year. Matos, 27, said during Saturday's FanFest that he wants to remain an Oriole and is looking forward to competition in the spring - which also will include top prospect Nick Markakis.
But several teams, including the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates, have asked about Matos' availability this offseason. One industry source said the Orioles could revisit talks with the Mets about pitcher Kris Benson using Matos or reliever Jorge Julio as bait, although it's unlikely that both would be offered for Benson.
The Orioles also need to decide where to bat the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Patterson, who said he has no preference. Perlozzo would love for Patterson to hit second, so Melvin Mora, Tejada and Jay Gibbons can all move back one spot. But that's not a good fit if Patterson doesn't cut down on his strikeouts.
"We need a No. 2 guy to move the ball around, hit and run and steal, and he seems like he has some of those qualities," Perlozzo said. "But we'll have to see in the spring. If he's not a good guy for that, he'll hit lower in the order."
Hendry said in an afternoon news conference that the acquisition of center fielder Juan Pierre from the Florida Marlins this winter made Patterson expendable.
"[Patterson] is a quality guy, and I think the world of him as a kid and now a young man," Hendry said. "I just think it is something we had to do."
Initially, Hendry hoped to include Patterson in a deal for a major leaguer, but settled on bolstering his farm system. Four Cubs scouts watched the Orioles minor leaguers this year, and they were high on both Spears and Perez, Hendry said.
Spears, 20, batted .294 with six home runs at Single-A Frederick last season. A fifth-round draft pick in 2003, his path to the majors was blocked by Brian Roberts and Tejada.
Perez, 23, was 11-8 with a 4.28 ERA in 27 starts for Single-A Delmarva last year. Signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1999, Perez possesses a fastball that consistently is in the 92-95 mph range.
"I really love those guys," Orioles minor league director David Stockstill said. "No one wanted to lose either one of those players. But, at the same time, sometimes you have to lose minor league players to get major league players, and we're very excited about getting Corey Patterson."
Patterson's stats (All with Chicago Cubs)
Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BA
2000 11 42 9 7 1 0 2 2 1 .167
2001 59 131 26 29 3 0 4 14 4 .221
2002 153 592 71 150 30 5 14 54 18 .253
2003 83 329 49 98 17 7 13 55 16 .298
2004 157 631 91 168 33 6 24 72 32 .266
2005 126 451 47 97 15 3 13 34 15 .215
Totals 589 2176 293 549 99 21 70 231 86 .252