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Playing it cool

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- New Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is keeping his head down, which is no small task when you come into spring training on a pedestal.

He knows he's the centerpiece of Andy MacPhail's extensive rebuilding project, but he's trying not to let that define him as he feels his way around a new organization during his first week of spring workouts.

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"There are four good, worthy candidates for the center-field spot, and I'm lucky to be one of them," he said yesterday. "Just because I was traded for the ace of their pitching staff doesn't mean I get that spot."

That's the right attitude, but Jones almost certainly will get that spot. The Orioles didn't trade Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners for a minor league look-see. Jones is the guy whose performance will determine whether the deal goes down in Orioles history as a watershed moment or another wasted opportunity.

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Not necessarily this year's performance. Team officials, starting with MacPhail on the day the long-awaited trade was announced, have been quick to caution against putting too much on the kid too soon. Everybody can see the raw talent bubbling out of his lanky frame, but he's 22 years old and he hasn't even grown into his body yet.

Still, Jones knows there are inflated expectations, and he shrugs them off with surprising ease.

"I know the expectations are very high," Jones said, "but my expectations are a lot higher than their expectations. I want to play at a high level. I don't try to be cocky, really, but the numbers and projections are in my head."

It goes beyond that. Jones actually puts his own expectations down on paper before every season.

"I write them down every year," he said, "and I try to put them somewhere I won't see them all season. I hid them so well last year, I still haven't found them."

If you don't like this kind of kid, you don't like baseball. He has all the tools, has some style and has a clue about how to go about his business in a locker room that still has some crusty veterans waiting for the young guys to trip over their gloves.

Melvin Mora has been impressed.

"He's a serious guy," the third baseman said. "He didn't come here to joke around. He's got his game face, and he knows what he's doing. I've never played with him, so you'll just have to see when the season starts, but it seems like he's got some pop and plays pretty good in the outfield."

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First baseman Kevin Millar hasn't spent much time around Jones yet, but when he sizes him up in the clubhouse, he also likes what he sees.

"He's got that wiry body, very athletic," Millar said. "I've seen him take batting practice, and he's got real strong wrists and strong hands. He's just got that baseball body. I'd compare him to a young Eric Davis if you want to go back to your generation. Maybe a guy like Mike Cameron now."

(I probably should have broken it to Millar that he's from my generation, too, but he was trying to be helpful, so I let it pass. I mean, the guy has a chrome sign on his pickup truck that says "Special Cowboy-Up Edition," which everyone knows is just code for the model with the extra lumbar support.)

Jay Gibbons summed up Jones with just one word.

"Smooth."

Gibbons has been working alongside Jones in the outfield, and he has already seen close-up what Orioles scouts saw before they recommended that the team make him the key player in the Mariners package.

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"You can tell he'll cover a lot of ground," Gibbons said. "He has that very long, lanky body. I don't think he's filled out yet. Everything just looks easy."

Nick Markakis, the cornerstone of the Orioles' new outfield, has some history with Jones. They played together in the Arizona Fall League four years ago, soon after Jones was drafted in 2003, and Markakis marvels at how much his new teammate has matured since then.

"He's definitely different from my first impression of him," Markakis said. "My first impression was, he was just so young. He had just gotten drafted. From then until now, he's very different. He's got a good head on his shoulders."

Jones is trying to keep that head down right now, but he knows everyone is watching.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.


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