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Orioles' Bedard, Guthrie proving worth as young starters

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SEATTLE -- At the risk of inviting in the straitjackets, here's a thought: The Baltimore Orioles suddenly appear to have some pitchers to build around. And one of them might be the best left-hander in baseball, Johan Santana be damned.

Go ahead and take away my shoelaces.

"He's as good as any lefty in this league," Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said recently of his ace, Erik Bedard. "I would think his numbers back that up. With the number of quality starts he's had and the number of innings pitched, he's a legitimate No. 1 pitcher with his stuff. His work ethic is off the charts, but the thing I like most about him is his poise."

Before we go any further, let's acknowledge that just about anything in baseball can be argued depending on the specific question. For example: Asking people what player they would first select to build a team around is different than asking them to identify the best player in the game. In the former instance, we're talking about the future, which factors in age and promise. In the latter, we're talking about the here and now.

All of that brings us to Bedard vs. Santana circa the summer of 2007. On the one hand, Santana has won two of the last three American League Cy Young Awards ad is enjoying a run of success like no other pitcher in the game, regardless of what his won-lost record is this season. On the other, in 2007, you can now make the very real argument that Bedard has been at least as good, if not better.

Proof? Since May 1, Bedard is now 8-2 with a 2.11 ERA that easily is the best in the AL. (Second is Baltimore's other developing weapon, right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.) Bedard had won seven straight decisions through Tuesday's victory over Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox. For the season, he was averaging better than 11 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, easily the highest figure in the game.

In baseball, like anything else, trends mean everything. Where we're going is frequently as important as where we are. And coming off a 15-win 2006 season during which he established himself as a reliable, solid and effective major league pitcher -- and on a bad team, no less -- you cannot help but get the feeling that Bedard is on the verge of becoming a truly elite pitcher in the game.

"He could easily have five more wins," said Trembley said of Bedard, who received poor run support early in the season. "He's not a selfish guy. I haven't seen him change his approach at all."

Of course, it is probably not a coincidence, at least on some level, that Bedard's ascension has coincided with the arrival of pitching coach Leo Mazzone in Baltimore. While with the Atlanta Braves, Mazzone worked with, among others, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. All of those pitchers could be going to the Hall of Fame. Giving Mazzone credit for Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz is utterly absurd, but the point is that he has a track record of working with good pitchers -- and in making sure that they continued to be good.

With Bedard -- and, for that matter, Guthrie -- the Orioles have the necessary building blocks to get back to contender status: Starting pitching. Bedard's development into a legitimate, bona fide staff ace is impossible to overstate, especially one when considers the impact that an ace alone can have on a club. Without Santana, for instance, the Twins would have been a relatively mediocre team in recent years. (Last season, the Twins were 20 games over .500 solely in games started by Santana.) The same was generally true when Randy Johnson was in Seattle and Pedro Martinez first arrived in Boston, which is why Bedard not could be the key to turning around the fortunes of a once proud Baltimore franchise.

"The philosophy is very evident," Trembley said. "You win with pitching and defense."

And in that order.

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