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O's step toward brighter future

It took a couple of years and he waited until he was safely on the opposite side of the country, but Erik Bedard -- that talented and tight-lipped left-hander -- finally said something interesting. Bedard's stoicism and peaceful demeanor always seemed to hint at an unappreciated intellect, so that's why it's worth noting that the first time he opened his mouth as a member of the Seattle Mariners, he was wrong.

"With Baltimore, it seems like you were backwards," Bedard told Seattle reporters Friday.

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I don't point this out because Baltimore is any kind of jilted lover in the much anticipated five-for-one swap that was finally completed Friday. And I certainly don't mean to denigrate Bedard, whose intense focus and private demeanor are admirable qualities when put alongside the loudmouthed attention seekers who populate many locker rooms.

I cast a derisive eye on Bedard's curious comment because his timing is way off.

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Bedard was drafted by the Orioles in 1999. Important reminder: We're talking about a team that has finished firmly in fourth place in nine of the past 10 seasons. Bedard could have questioned the Orioles' direction at any point in the past decade and he would have been met by a stadium-full of approving nods. But not Friday.

Friday was one of the few days in the franchise's recent history when -- regardless of what Bedard thinks -- they were not taking steps backward.

Shortly before Bedard met with reporters in Seattle, Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail addressed the media in Baltimore, where he said all the right things. He called the trade "bittersweet" and acknowledged that the Orioles had been "stuck in neutral" for too long.

There were two moist theories that finally dried and became realities last week:

1. The Orioles will be bad this season. I mean, really bad. Last-place bad. Meatballs 4 bad.

2. And, somehow, that's a good thing.

It's twisted logic, sure, but considering logic has mostly eluded the Warehouse the past decade, you take what you can get. Fact of the matter is, because the Orioles resisted a ground-up approach for so long, now that they're finally embracing a sensible rebuilding plan, the pain and suffering involved is even more excruciating than it should have been.

"We are serious about wanting to win," MacPhail said, "and sometimes you have to pay the price for that. You have to be willing to make a short-term sacrifice."

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Which is what Bedard didn't seem to grasp in his evaluation of the Orioles and their direction. All he seemed to notice was what 2008 seems to promise here in Baltimore: 90 losses, maybe 100. No cleanup hitter? A suspect and incomplete starting rotation? Youth and inexperience at key positions? Stepping aside as perennial cellar-dweller Tampa Bay moves into the passing lane?

This team has been ruled by shortsighted decisions for too long. Rather than clinging to a talent such as Bedard and trying to fill the cracks around him, the Orioles finally opted to build a foundation that might not crack.

It's too bad the Orioles had to part ways with Bedard, but the focal point is no longer the near future. Had this trade -- and the one in December that sent shortstop Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros -- not been made, we would still be talking about a sub-.500 team, and in two years neither Bedard nor Tejada would be around anyway. As it is, MacPhail needs just a few of the 10 players he acquired in exchange for Bedard and Tejada to turn into regular contributors. It's a gamble, sure, but MacPhail has decent odds in his favor.

MacPhail knew when he embarked on these sweeping changes that the team would suffer some growing pains. What he did not know was how the Orioles' fan base would respond. Already frustrated from years of mediocrity, would fans bear through another season or two of even more losing, still more embarrassment?

Don't expect the stands to be packed every night this spring, but it seems fans are applauding the Orioles for getting rid of their two most talented players this offseason.

"There really did seem to be a groundswell for this," MacPhail said of the Bedard trade. "I never thought I'd see people who'd be disappointed if you didn't trade one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game. That's really the scenario that evolved here over time.

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"I think people understand it's going to be a little bit painful, but it's necessary. To really win, this is what we have to do."

We'll follow the standings this season, but the progress won't likely appear there. Instead, we'll have to see just how committed the team is to scouting and player development. That seems to be on the right track, allowing John Stockstill to focus on international scouting, committing more resources and personnel to the Dominican Republic, acknowledging the existence of Asia and stocking the Orioles' minor league teams with prospects. The moves they're making now won't help the Orioles in 2008, but they're not designed to.

I'm glad Bedard found his voice, and he deserves to pitch for a winner. But Orioles fans shouldn't judge their team's progress based on Bedard's observations. For that matter, they shouldn't rely solely on promises from Orioles officials.

It will just take smart decisions and a bit of time -- two things the Orioles were unable or unwilling to expend until very recently.

rick.maese@baltsun.com


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