Even before Erik Bedard started an eight-decision winning streak that elevated him to an American League Cy Young Award candidate, the Orioles vowed to explore signing their 28-year-old ace to a long-term contract extension.
Bedard is under contractual control by the Orioles through the 2009 season, but with each dominating outing the pitcher delivers, securing him for the long term might be more and more of a priority.
"We have him for the next couple of years, but I think it is very appropriate to consider him in that Cy Young caliber," said Andy MacPhail, Orioles president of baseball operations. "He's been extraordinarily impressive. Why wouldn't you want him here for a long time? I'm sure we'll prioritize those things that we want to attack and I'd imagine that one of those things will be having conversations with his representation and him to see how comfortable he is being here long term."
That's where things could get interesting. There has been much speculation about whether Bedard would want to sign an extension with the Orioles and eschew a potentially huge free-agent payday in the process. For his part, Bedard sees no point in discussing that or the Orioles' failed attempt to sign him to an extension this past offseason.
His focus remains on the 2007 season, and his numbers indicate he's become not only a legitimate No. 1 starter, but one of the top pitchers in the major leagues.
"Everybody has thought about [free agency], but it's not an issue that I'm thinking about," said Bedard, who is 12-4 with a 3.09 ERA. "I guess it will be attractive when we start actually talking about it. Right now, I know I'm going to be here for the next two years. That's why I'm not worried about it. If [an extension] happens, fine. If it doesn't, you move on."
Cy Young contender
Bedard, who won 15 games last year, had a rough April, going 3-2 with a 6.09 ERA. But he has lost only twice in 18 starts since, and not at all since June 10. It's a career-long streak that he hopes continues later this week when he faces the Boston Red Sox in his next outing.
He leads the major leagues with 192 strikeouts, 28 more than any other pitcher, and he's on pace to obliterate Mike Mussina's 1997 franchise record of 218 in a season. "He clearly has demonstrated to me that he's a winning type player and definitely somebody that you can build around," MacPhail said.
MacPhail said it is early to speculate on Cy Young Award candidates but sees no reasons why Bedard shouldn't be considered. It was an opinion shared not only by several Orioles, but also by the opposition.
"He can definitely be mentioned with those guys," Tampa Bay Devil Rays All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford said. "Against me, he just uses two pitches. That should tell you how dominant his stuff is."
Bedard has recorded at least 10 strikeouts strikeouts six times this season. He's allowed two earned runs or fewer in 14 of his past 18 outings, including five in which he didn't allow a run, and opponents are hitting .214 against him.
"As far as stuff, he probably has the best stuff out of a left-handed starter that I've caught or seen," Orioles catcher Paul Bako said. " I know Randy Johnson has the fastball and the slider. Bedard's got a two-seam fastball, a cutter and his curveball, to me, is close with Randy Johnson's slider.
"He's the whole package. The only thing he can possibly do is manage his pitch count a little better, and that's hard to do when you have that kind of stuff. Guys have a tough time putting balls in play."
When Bedard was named the American League Pitcher of the Month for July, the first Orioles pitcher to get that honor since April 1994, fellow starter Daniel Cabrera told him that he also was going to win the Cy Young Award. Bedard quickly said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa," wanting to end the conversation immediately.
The Orioles haven't had a Cy Young Award winner since Steve Stone in 1980, and Bedard probably has little margin of error over his final 11 or 12 starts if he is going to be the next one. He is not on a playoff team, and that won't help his candidacy, but it won't derail it, either. Last's year National League Cy Young Award winner, Brandon Webb, was on an Arizona Diamondbacks squad that went 76-86.
The biggest hurdle will be the number of AL starters having great years. Dan Haren of the Oakland Athletics, the Cleveland Indians' C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, and Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox have more wins than Bedard, but among them only Haren has a better ERA.
"To just be mentioned as one of the top pitchers in baseball, that's a great feeling," Bedard said.
The Orioles made an attempt to sign Bedard to a long-term extension last year, but it went nowhere. According to team sources, they offered Bedard a four-year deal at a little less than $5 million per season. Bedard and his agent, Mark Pieper, predictably said no thanks.
One team source said the club wanted to see whether Bedard, who had Tommy John surgery earlier in his career, could stay healthy over the course of another full season before they made a more lucrative offer. Ultimately, the Orioles avoided arbitration with the pitcher, agreeing to a $3.4 million deal after both sides entered arbitration figures that were $1.3 million apart.
Bedard declined to comment on past negotiations with the club, including whether he felt slighted by the contract offer. Asked what his reaction would be if he is approached this offseason with a more lucrative deal, Bedard said, "If it makes sense ... we'll have to have talks and see what happens."
But essentially, the ball is in the Orioles' court.
"There is no reason to make a statement that he wouldn't consider a multi-year deal. That's just silly," Pieper said. "But as a general statement, it's more difficult to sign players to multi-year deals the closer that they get to free agency."
Bedard said he enjoys being an Oriole. "I like it here," he said. "Right now, this is the most fun and best team that I've played on. Everyone gets along. Even when we lose, we still have fun."
Bedard said several factors will determine whether he signs long term, including the success of the team. He is well aware that most of the team's nucleus is signed only through the 2009 season, when he's eligible for free agency.
"It's never fun playing for a losing team," he said.
The Orioles should get a better feel for Bedard's price tag in the coming months. Chicago Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano is eligible for free agency after this season. He already reportedly turned down a five-year, $80 million offer from the Cubs. Sabathia and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins are eligible after next season, while Mark Buehrle just signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Chicago White Sox.
Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts knows a little about what Bedard is going through. The Orioles wanted to sign him to a longer-term deal this past offseason, but Roberts decided to extend by just one year because he wanted to see the direction of the franchise. While Roberts and Bedard have the same agent, Roberts said it wasn't his place to weigh in on Bedard's decision.
"That's his contract. That's his choice," he said. "He's here for the next two years. He's on the same time frame I am. But do I think he deserves [an extension]? Do I think they should do it? Yeah, certainly. You're talking about one of the best in the game."
Note -- Freddie Bynum, who was expected to be activated today after being sidelined with a strained left hamstring, had his hand stepped on while sliding into second base on a rehabilitation assignment for Single-A Delmarva on Sunday. He needed five stitches, and his return to the Orioles likely will be delayed.
Cy Young Award winners
Four Orioles have won the American League Cy Young Award:
Year Pitcher W-L ERA
1969 Mike Cuellar 23-11 2.38
1973 Jim Palmer 22-9 2.40
1975 Jim Palmer 23-11 2.09
1976 Jim Palmer 22-13 2.51
1979 Mike Flanagan 23-9 3.08
1980 Steve Stone 25-7 3.23