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O'S ARMED WITH OPTIONS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joe Jordan's draft philosophy hasn't wavered since he took over the Orioles' amateur scouting department in November 2004.

He takes the highest-rated player on his scouting board, regardless of position, need, representation or educational status.

In analyzing Jordan's first four Orioles drafts, however, a clear pattern emerges.

Of his top-10 picks in each of the past four years, 30 were college players and 10 from high school. Of those 40, only three were high school pitchers; the highest selected were third-rounders Brandon Erbe (2005) and Zach Britton (2006).

It's possible that trend will change today, perhaps as early as the Orioles' first-round selection, the fifth overall pick. It's the third consecutive year the Orioles have had a top-five pick and eighth time in nine years they have selected in the top 10.

"There are a lot of good arms in the draft. It's high school. It's college," Jordan said. "There are a lot of different options, right-handed, left-handed. I would say it is pretty complete; it depends on which way a person wants to go."

Strictly from a need standpoint, the Orioles' system is lacking most in position players. Of the top 12 Orioles minor leaguers, as ranked by Baseball America this preseason, only four were hitters. Two of those, catcher Matt Wieters and outfielder Nolan Reimold, are already in the big leagues.

That coincides with Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's rebuilding mantra: "Grow the arms, buy the bats."

It also meshes with this year's draft class, which is considered top-heavy in pitching prospects and short on premier hitters.

"I think there are some good position-player options once we get into the draft a little," Jordan said. "It's not totally void of position-player prospects, but not when you're talking the top half of the first round."

Only one hitter, University of North Carolina's sweet-swinging first baseman-outfielder Dustin Ackley, is believed to be a lock for a top-five spot. The Seattle Mariners will likely take him with the second overall pick after consensus No. 1 Stephen Strasburg, a right-hander from San Diego State, goes to the Washington Nationals.

The Orioles would gladly take either Strasburg, considered the most polished college hurler since Mark Prior, or Ackley if either falls, but that's not anticipated.

That leaves the Orioles with a host of pitching choices, led by Georgia high school right-hander Zack Wheeler, Vanderbilt lefty Mike Minor and Arizona State right-hander Mike Leake.

Wheeler, who can throw in the mid-90s, probably has the highest ceiling of the trio; Minor, whose out pitch is a changeup, may be the closest to the majors; and Leake is an all-around competitor who has thrived in the Pacific-10 Conference. A darkhorse candidate is California prep righty Matt Hobgood, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound power pitcher.

Wheeler or Hobgood would become only the second high school pitcher to be selected by the Orioles with their first pick since Chris Myers in 1987 (Adam Loewen was drafted fourth overall in 2002).

At least during his tenure, Jordan says, that's more coincidental than by design.

Twice under Jordan, the Orioles took high school players with their first-round pick: catcher-infielder Brandon Snyder in 2005 and corner infielder-outfielder Billy Rowell in 2006. In the past two years, Jordan chose Wieters and lefty Brian Matusz (University of San Diego) with his first-round picks because he thought they were by far the best players available.

Jordan said he has no reservations in selecting high school pitchers and said there is one distinct advantage to picking them: You have more control over their development.

"In most situations, it's a four- or five-year process to get [prep pitchers] through the big leagues, so that in itself is a risk because that is a lot of time and a lot of pitches to be thrown. But you also can protect them better," Jordan said. "Some college arms have thrown 160 pitches in a game or 130 to 150 [pitches in a game ten times]. That concerns me. That's risky if you are talking about investing a lot of money in those guys."

As for the money, the Orioles won't shy from the top-dollar demands of some players, according to MacPhail.

In the past three years, they have doled out roughly $20.3 million in signing bonuses to draft-eligible amateurs, fifth highest in baseball behind the Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants.

With their international scouting program still fledgling, the amateur draft is even more essential to the Orioles' future success. So they'll open up the checkbook for the right players, whether that's in the form of hitters or pitchers, college or prep.

"It's an important avenue of talent for us," MacPhail said. "We pay attention to 'signability.' But at the end of the day, we know this is the most important entry of talent in our system.

"We know we can't buy three [major league] players for a half billion dollars. That's not in the cards for us, so this is an area that we are pretty aggressive."

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