Hoarding youngsters makes sense for O's

When Mike Mussina embraced the bright lights and big money of New York in 2000, the Orioles were left without an ace, a No. 1 pitcher who evokes fear in the opponent and gives his team the belief that it will win every time he is on the mound.

That void lasted until 2006, when hard-throwing, low-talking lefty Erik Bedard truly emerged. He gained national prominence last season when he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate before missing September with a strained oblique.


So why, after being without one for so long, would the Orioles deal away a 28-year-old homegrown ace for five unproven players?

Because the Orioles have little use for a short-term ace. They aren't playing for this season. Or next. They need as many talented young players as possible. And trading Bedard to the Seattle Mariners gives them quality and quantity.


That's why, at least for now, it's a move club president Andy MacPhail had to make. No matter how good Bedard is.

First, the quantity:

The Orioles get four players age 23 or younger (outfielder Adam Jones, 22, and pitching prospects Chris Tillman, 19, Tony Butler, 20, and Kam Mickolio, 23) as well as quality lefty reliever George Sherrill, who might become the Orioles' 2008 closer. Add in the five they received by trading Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros, and the Orioles have picked up 10 players in exchange for two since December.

Of those, only Sherrill, outfielder Luke Scott and pitcher Dennis Sarfate are older than 25. Immediately, all levels of the Orioles' farm system receive a boost.

Secondly, there's the quality:

Jones, a supplemental first-rounder in 2003, is considered the all-around package by scouts and baseball executives alike. Yes, "toolsy" outfielders often flame out, but Jones should be different.

He has batted .291 with a .350 on-base percentage in five minor league seasons despite being among the youngest players in the leagues in which he has played. He's an above-average defender, and his power is developing. He compares favorably with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron, except Jones should be a better hitter.

Scouts believe Tillman, a second-rounder in 2006, can be at least a No. 3 starter. He has a mid-90s fastball, a quality curve and a developing changeup. And he doesn't turn 20 until April. Of the Orioles' top 10 prospects as selected by Baseball America, only infielder Billy Rowell is younger than Tillman.


The other two pitching prospects in the deal, Butler and Mickolio, are huge (6 feet 7 and 6-9, respectively) and raw but project as major leaguers.

Sherrill, 30, doesn't fit the long-term plan, but he has value now and could be dealt to a contender if he doesn't settle in as a closer here.

Any lingering disappointment from the trade should be minimal. Certainly it would have been better if the Orioles had acquired another top-level prospect (such as slugger Jeff Clement, shortstop Carlos Triunfel or pitcher Brandon Morrow) for Bedard.

Also, the Orioles have a dearth of quality position players in their system and they have added just three hitters in the trades for Tejada and Bedard. But the thought within the warehouse is to obtain the best players possible, regardless of position; they can always deal an excess of quality arms for position needs at a later date.

The biggest potential positive, however, is that the Orioles might finally have found a center fielder for now and the future.

Center field was once one of the franchise's most stable positions. From 1960 to 1982 only three men, Jackie Brandt (1960-64), Paul Blair (1965-76) and Al Bumbry (1977-82), started Opening Day in center for the Orioles.


In comparison, since 2000, six Orioles - Brady Anderson, Melvin Mora, Chris Singleton, Gary Matthews Jr., Luis Matos and Corey Patterson - have opened the season in center here. In the past five seasons, the Orioles have had 23 players - almost an entire major league roster - play center field for at least one game.

That revolving door should close with this deal. And pairing Jones with right fielder Nick Markakis, 24, gives the Orioles one of the best young outfield duos in the American League for years to come.

It's all speculative, of course. A true assessment of this trade can't be delivered for at least two years, if not longer.

Giving up a legitimate, rare ace for prospects is always risky. But given the club's situation, the Orioles received a solid - maybe spectacular - haul for Bedard.