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Traded LHP Erik Bedard to the Mariners for OF-R Adam Jones, RHPs Chris Tillman and Kam Mickolio, and LHPs George Sherrill and Tony Butler.

At least one colleague has called this “the worst offseason ever,” but I think we can officially add the Orioles to the winners’ circle for finally pulling off a deal that’s much more future-minded than the Tejada trade. The point isn’t to conveniently impress the chattering classes at the Winter Meetings, nor is it important to make all your moves in time for players to get projected for their correct team in time for Baseball Prospectus 2008, much though I wish it were so. The point is to do the real work of rebuilding, and this is exactly the sort of trade that reflects Andy MacPhail’s commitment to remake a fallen marquee franchise.

First among the five, Jones wasn’t eligible for Kevin Goldstein‘s Top 100 prospects list, but he’s a true blue-chip center fielder, with plus speed, power, and defense, and a spread of hitting skills that aren’t merely ready now, they’re ready to shine. Nate Silver‘s PECOTA-generated expectations are appropriately high-the reasonable expectation is that he’ll slug around .450 as a 22-year-old playing everyday in the majors, but the projections involve an even more encouraging potential for stepping up beyond his 2007 breakout. Put him in Camden Yards in front of an active fan base dying to rally to someone more heroic than the latest low-end merc willing to cash in Angelos scrip, and watch as adulation ensues.

The odds that Jones’s career, or even just the next six years of it, wind up being more than worth two years of Bedard already make this a deal the Orioles should feel good about, but Jones isn’t all that they got. Tillman rates 44th overall on Goldstein’s list, and as the organization’s second-best prospect. A hard-throwing high school pick from 2006, Tillman has the sort of long-limbed frame scouts like, and he cooks with gas when he isn’t blowing people away with a power overhand curve. The fact that he was already holding his own last summer in the pitcher’s charnel house of High Desert in the Cal League against much older competition-and in only his first full season after getting drafted-and finished the season still firing strikes and going strong are major indications that he’s another one of the Mariners’ fast-rising teen phenoms capable of surviving a more aggressive promotion schedule. Tillman will be 20 on Tax Day, so the suggestion that he could make Double-A at some point this season is really reason to get excited. Orioles fans who want to enjoy a taste of the future can make a day trip of it and drive to Frederick to see Tillman early in the season, then make the shorter trip to Double-A Bowie later on in the summer; it’ll be worth the price of admission, and the sort of thing to inspire dreams of a happy future.

Butler might be 20 already and a level behind Tillman, but those are far from indictments of his upside. A huge, hard-throwing lefty is something every team will take a chance on, so while he had a rough full-season debut in the Midwest League last year before being shut down with a tired arm, the fact that his next rung will be at Frederick instead of High Desert makes his potential to take a step forward slightly more likely. Mickolio is, like Tillman and Butler, a product of the Mariners’ 2006 draft. He is even bigger than either of the others (6’9″ to Butler’s 6’7″ and Tillman’s 6’5″), and gets his fastball into the mid-90s. He’s very much the unfinished product, so what direction his career takes is definitely a question mark.

Oh, and they got a veteran lefty out of the deal. Sherrill’s not chopped liver, a premium situational lefty who, together with Jamie Walker, gives the O’s a solid pair of bullpen weapons for in-game machinations. There’s also the additional virtue of strength in numbers for a non-contender, which is that the Orioles can entertain offers for either from needy playoff-minded clubs in July and August, and get something a little more future-oriented. You can consider that possible ripple effect as a “sixth player” the Orioles might get out of this deal, as if this deal wasn’t already exceptional.

Finally, there is the question about the past two weeks’ worth of speculation over Jones’s long-term health. While I should make it clear I have no direct information that Jones is totally in the clear and look forward to Will Carroll‘s comments on the subject, I’m reminded of the Dodgers‘ post-deal whispering campaign about Paul Konerko‘s “degenerative hip” shortly after Tommy Lasorda had made the unfortunate decision to deal him for Jeff Shaw. The difference is that the Konerko blarney was just Lasorda venting some CYA spin after making a bad deal, and getting cooperation from some of his favorite established-media fourth estate types, while the Jones hysteria seems to be a product of the now-ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle, as delayed gratification (courtesy of a rescheduled physical) leads to increasingly hysterical speculation. The probable similarity is that in neither case was news being reported, so Orioles fans can probably just take a breather and go back to normal levels of worry over how many of the young pitchers received will avoid the standard hazards of staying healthy while performing an unnatural act.

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Acquired LHP Erik Bedard from the Orioles for OF-R Adam Jones, RHPs Chris Tillman and Kam Mickolio, and LHPs George Sherrill and Tony Butler.

While it’s a curious thing that Bedard, like Haren, fetched a better package than Johan Santana, like Haren, the Mariners weren’t just acquiring a player, they were acquiring a sub-market contract, and that’s worth more in an industry where teams place a premium on their financial freedom of action. With Bedard under control for two more years, the Mariners basically took on Bedard’s significant injury risk for his track record and upside at a price they can be comfortable with; in a market where Carlos Silva is worth $48 million for four years because of relative durability, that’s not an unreasonable calculation when the additional $5-10 million per year to sign a free agent ace seems out of reach. (The alternative, sometimes employed by the Yankees and Dodgers to good effect, of paying high but for shorter periods doesn’t seem to be part of Bill Bavasi’s financial arsenal.)

The positives are obvious. Bedard was already a likely bet to rank among the ten best starters in the league pitching in Camden Yards; put him in Safeco in front of brilliant defenders like Ichiro!, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Adrian Beltre instead of the O’s more sluggish crew, and it isn’t hard to envision things turning out exceptionally well if he gets as much support from his teammates with wood as well as leather. If that happens and he makes 30 or more starts, winning two elements of the pitching triple crown-wins and strikeouts-is a goal he can definitely achieve.

Which is where we get into the wuss-words element of this exercise: if. Bedard’s track record for staying healthy enough to deliver full seasons on the mound is spotty at best, something he’s done exactly once in the last seven years. Some of that is a matter of appropriately cautious handling of a premium prospect, but some of it reflects the basic truth that Bedard isn’t a workhorse. Whether or not John McLaren, Mel Stottlemyre, and the team’s trainers can keep Bedard in full operating order the next two years represents the crucial element of whether or not the Mariners get their full value for dealing so much homegrown talent.

Which brings us to the question: is this enough to propel the Mariners up above the clouds, with the Angels atop the division? Consider PECOTA’s 2008 projections for the Support-Neutral value of the two teams’ rotations:

Angels           SN      Mariners          SN
John Lackey     5.70     Erik Bedard      6.00
Kelvim Escobar  4.50     Felix Hernandez  4.30
Jered Weaver    3.90     Jarrod Washburn  2.10
Jon Garland     3.10     Carlos Silva     1.90
Ervin Santana   3.00     Miguel Batista   1.80
Joe Saunders    2.10     Cha Seung Baek   0.90
                         Horacio Ramirez  0.30

The numbers reflect what I think we already understand automatically about this deal, that putting Bedard into the mix gives the Mariners a front-end tandem in the rotation that compares very favorable with the Angels’ top pair. Just as obviously, a group of Washburn, Silva, and Batista is really a trio of veteran inning eaters who don’t have a lot of up-side potential. I throw Baek out there because that’s a projection in only a little more than half as much playing time; that suggests the Mariners could bounce Batista back to the bullpen if they decided that was important, and it wouldn’t hurt them any in the rotation. Even if we start playing what-if scenarios where Bedard stays healthy while Escobar breaks down-not unrealistic, that-the Halos still have a group of generally younger, better starters with better potential to outperform this baseline expectation. Admittedly, we’ve been waiting a while on Ervin Santana, and not everybody has a lot of love for Garland, but generally speaking, the Angels have a better group.

If there’s going to be a difference-making wild card, it’s going to have to be King Felix finally turning the corner he seems to have been standing on for the past two years. Considering he’s only going to be 22 this year, that’s not an unreasonable proposition, and what acquiring Bedard does is radically improve the prospect of the Mariners being able to see that breakout help them towards a season with playoff potential, instead of just being a modern iteration of Mark Langston‘s wasted greatness in franchise history. The price was high, but the benefits are solid enough to have accepted this risk, and it isn’t like Bill Bavasi gutted his system, since the organization is still stocked with premium talent. Instead, he took Adam Jones and what might be the cream of a single draft class (2006), and turned it into one of the best pitchers in the league. While it’s easy to cavalierly project another great draft class for the Mariners in 2008 to make up for what was shipped out, to the organization’s credit the Mariners are doing a very good job in scouting and adding amateur talent. If the Mariners want to take their chances seriously, they needed a move like this, and while they’ve risked an “Adam Jones Day” in Camden Yards 20 years from now, they’re taking the chance that they might generate some extra happy memories when the time comes to celebrate a Felix Hernandez Day around the same time.

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