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O's have high hopes for young hurlers

Orioles have high hopes for young hurlers

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For the last few years, Baltimore has had a fairly stable philosophy regarding amateur talent. The Orioles have focused on stockpiling young pitchers and easing their movement through the organizational chain, a process that has yielded homegrown starters Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen.

Those three are at completely different stages of development, but collectively, they signal a turning point in Baltimore's youth movement. One wave of high-caliber arms has arrived, and the Orioles still have enough talent to wait patiently on the development of fellow prospects Hayden Penn, Garrett Olson and Brandon Erbe.

Now, the Orioles don't have to study Minor League box scores as much or send their scouts to not-so-exotic locales all around the country. With Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen in one place, they can evaluate their future from home. And if, by any chance, they need a contingency plan, Penn's waiting in the wings.

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The question on everyone's mind is clear: Now that it's here, is the first wave of young arms good enough to overturn Baltimore's nine-season run of losing records? And if it isn't, how will management respond? Jim Duquette, Baltimore's vice president of baseball operations, said the Orioles aren't likely to change course anytime soon.

"It's not necessarily that they've arrived; it's that our philosophy has remained intact," said Duquette, who helped recruit placeholders Kris Benson and Steve Trachsel. "With the nature of the game and how expensive starting pitching has become, you'll see us continue to draft, develop and, for the most part, not trade our young pitching talent."

Development is rarely a straight line from start to finish, and the Orioles have readily grasped that fact. Nearly all of the team's pitchers have had a glitch in their trajectory, with Cabrera being the best example. The hulking right-hander shot through the Minor Leagues without much trouble, but he's been stuck in a big-league holding pattern.

Cabrera has had problems repeating his delivery and throwing strikes consistently -- two fairly normal problems for someone with his 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame. But the Orioles have stuck with him, giving him the best education possible and letting him figure things out between the lines. This year, they hope, he'll have it figured out.

Bedard, by contrast, has only had injuries standing in his way. The southpaw had Tommy John surgery in the Minor Leagues and lost nearly half a season to a knee ailment once he made the big-league leap. Bedard finally put it all together last year, establishing himself as the staff ace and the rock the team will build around.

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He hasn't been named the Opening Day starter, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in that role. Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo has hinted toward that, and Mike Flanagan, executive vice president of baseball operations, singled out Bedard on Saturday.

"It seems like this spring, Erik Bedard has really set the tone for the pitching staff. He's really been in midseason form, and I think it's been contagious," said Flanagan. "They're not overthrowing. That's the one thing we see on the staff. They're really pitching well this spring."

Loewen, the team's first-round pick in the 2002 draft, might be the biggest X-factor. The southpaw graduated to the big leagues after Penn came down with appendicitis and made an impression with his limited audition. Loewen went 6-6 last year, but the Orioles see him as a potential antidote to lefty-heavy lineups in Boston and New York.

That status is fairly impressive for a pitcher who made just 12 appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. Loewen has moved quickly, but he appears to be everything the Orioles hoped for when they drafted him. In fact, he's even more, because the O's wanted him to toil in the Minors last year and compete for a relief spot this year.

"In most circles, we thought Penn was going to be the guy," said Duquette. "Loewen came on the radar real fast, but everyone thought Penn was ahead of him. I'm not sure we had it designed quite like this. We knew it would be Bedard and Cabrera, but the big question was whether it would be Loewen or Penn. "

"We're real pleased with how they're coming along," said Flanagan, speaking generally about the three homegrown pitchers. "All three are at different phases, but there seems to be a leveling where they're all kind of on the same plane this spring. That's certainly exciting for me, to watch them grow and change.

"All three of those guys we're talking about have broken through, and now we're just anxious to get going."

So where are the fair expectations? Is it OK to predict an All-Star season from Bedard and 10 wins from both Cabrera and Loewen? Nobody wants to set the bar that high, for the simple reason that they're not sure what to expect. Any of the three could explode on the league, and any of the three could take a big step backwards.

But that's just the short-term outlook. The long-term looks considerably better to the men closest to the action.

"We have to get through Spring Training. And after that, we have to take it a start at a time," said pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "Nobody's smart enough to project how much better we can be. Different pitchers reach certain points in makeup and maturity at different times. If you've got them all hitting at the same time, you're in real good shape."

"I don't want to put all the focus or emphasis on them," added Duquette, protecting his young pitchers until the end. "How they all come together as one unit -- along with the bullpen -- is really the thing we're looking at. If any one of those guys struggles, we feel like we have enough depth from within to cover for that and pick up the slack."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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