Mariners Pay The Price To Land Bedard

The Deal
More than a week after hammering out the framework for a deal, the Orioles traded lefty Erik Bedard to the Mariners for four promising young players and top lefty reliever George Sherrill, who turns 31 early next year. Also headed to Baltimore are center fielder Adam Jones, 22; lefty Tony Butler, 20; and righthanders Chris Tillman, 20, and Kam Mickolio, 24.

Baltimore’s trade of Bedard completes the trifecta of aces-for-prospects trades executed this offseason—not to mention the blockbusters for Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Tejada, Edgar Renteria and Nick Swisher. The Diamondbacks struck first, securing Dan Haren (and Connor Robertson) from Oakland in December for six players. The Mets landed Johan Santana for four prospects a week ago.

The Big Leaguers
Bedard, who will be 29 this season, teams with Felix Hernandez to give the Mariners perhaps the American League’s most electric one-two punch. A native of Ontario and the Orioles’ sixth-round pick in 1999, Bedard was just filthy in 2007, going 13-5, 3.16 and leading the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (10.9) and hits per nine (7.0). His ERA ranked fourth, and he was on pace to lead the league in strikeouts—he finished with 221 in 186 innings—before an oblique injury sidelined him for the final month.

Bedard’s stuff is unquestionable. With a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a plus-plus curveball, his arsenal is more than potent enough to combat lefties and righties. Detractors point to the fact that despite Bedard’s age, he has yet to pitch 200 innings in a season—though he did make 33 starts in 2006. He’s also a Tommy John survivor, having had the surgery in 2002. To his credit, he recovered quickly from the procedure and made it to the big leagues for good to begin the 2004 season. Right out of the gate, Bedard showed very strong strikeout rates, but achieved elite status only in the last two seasons as he’s slashed his walk rate, from 4.7 per nine as a rookie down to 2.8 last season.

Jones had the kind of offensive breakout that seemed all but inevitable. With a year in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League under his belt, Jones showed increased power output in 2007, as he clubbed two home runs in a game four times during the season and finished with 25 in 101 games. He also ranked third in the league with a .586 slugging percentage. A supplemental first-round pick in 2003 from a San Diego high school, Jones offers excellent range in center and a strong arm he used to record 12 assists. Improved plate coverage and discipline, as much as anything, contributed to his .314/.382/.586 averages with Tacoma. Though he’s an above-average runner, Jones’ speed is better suited to covering ground in center and to taking extra bases than it is to stealing bases.

Undrafted out of college and a five-year veteran of the indy leagues, Sherrill burst onto the scene in 2006, a year in which he limited lefties to a .143 average with three extra-base hits in 77 at-bats. For an encore, he held them to a .156 average last season with six extra-base hits in 90 at-bats. Big league lefties are a lifetime .167/.227/.291 off Sherrill, who sits in the low 90s with a good slider. His body isn’t pretty (he touched 300 pounds coming out of Austin Peay State), but his deliberate, stiff delivery and funky arm slot make him extremely tough on lefties.

The Prospects
Seattle bumped the 19-year-old Tillman to high Class A High Desert after just eight low Class A starts. He struggled initially as he got used to more advanced California League competition and an unforgiving home park, but went 5-4, 4.75 with 89 strikeouts in 78 innings in the second half. A 2006 second-round pick from a California high school, Tillman attacks hitters with a 91-94 mph fastball and an 11-to-5 curveball, showing advanced feel for a young hurler. He’s 6-foot-5 with a clean delivery, but while he shows aptitude for a changeup, it’s a third pitch. Tillman went 7-11, 4.84 overall last season with 139-61 K-BB in 136 innings for High Desert and low Class A Wisconsin.

The Mariners landed Butler one round after they selected Tillman in the 2006 draft, and both now head to Baltimore. Butler touched 90 mph toward the end of his senior year at Oak Creek (Wis.) High, and he breezed through the short-season Northwest League in his 2006 debut. Though he didn’t live up to expectations in 2007, going 4-7, 4.75 with 73-46 K-BB for Wisconsin and twice spending time on the disabled list with a dead arm, Butler is a physical lefty with quality stuff. His above-average 88-92 mph four-seam fastball features late life, and he also can buckle knees with his curveball. He has feel for a changeup with late fade and deception. Butler’s arm action is not fluid, which provides deception but also puts stress on his shoulder and makes it difficult to maintain velocity. His fastball velocity jumped to the 94-95 mph range prior to the ’06 draft, leading him to rank third on BA’s Mariners Top 30 entering 2007, but he didn’t throw that hard in his first full season.

Few prospects have come as far as fast as Mickolio, who went from 18th-round pick out of Utah Valley State in 2006 to Triple-A Tacoma in less than a year. A native of Montana, a state without high school baseball, the 6-foot-9 Mickolio played only basketball until the summer before his senior year of high school, when he began playing American Legion ball. Mickolio throws his power sinker at 92-97 mph from a low three-quarters arm slot. The ball bores in on righthanders and his cross-body throwing motion gives him plenty of deception. Mickolio needs to find more consistency with his slider, which shows good depth at times, but as a reliever he can get by if the pitch is merely average because his fastball is so good. He’ll also need to improve his changeup to combat lefthanders.

Quick Take
Though Bedard has two years remaining until he qualifies for free agency, his situation with Baltimore became untenable this offseason when the Orioles refused to cave in to his demands for a trade (immediately, anyway) or long-term deal. He earned $3.4 million last season and while he’ll still be quite affordable, the Orioles, who do not project to be contenders this year, did well to maximize Bedard’s trade value this winter, rather than sitting on him a year. Perhaps history was Baltimore’s guide. They traded their shortstop Tejada earlier in the offseason, but only after passing on potentially more lucrative offers for his services in 2006.

That Seattle was willing to part with two of their very best young talents in Jones and Tillman and three other quality arms states, unequivocally, that they think they can hang with the Angels in the West and rub shoulders with the powers in the East and Central for the Wild Card. The Mariners picked up free agent Brad Wilkerson last week to offset the loss of Jones in right field, but they’ll need other hitters to step up if they’re to realize their playoff dreams.

Seattle’s revamped rotation likely will feature some combination of Bedard, Hernandez, free-agent import Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista, an alignment that leaves starter would-bes Ryan Feierabend, Brandon Morrow and (mercifully, for Mariners fans) Horacio Ramirez on the outside looking in. With the departure of top bullpen lefty Sherrill, Eric O’Flaherty stands to see more high-leverage work, as does Ryan Rowland-Smith, who went into the offseason expecting to start in 2008. With Seattle’s recent activity, though, that move appears to be unnecessary.

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