The Washington Times - February 20, 2009, 12:58PM

The Baltimore Sun reported Friday morning that the Orioles and second baseman Brian Roberts have agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract extension that will keep the two-time All-Star in Baltimore through the 2013 season. “I don’t think I would’ve made the commitment to even begin negotiations if I didn’t think that at some point in this process of the next four or five years that we [would] have a chance to win,” Roberts said yesterday as he waited for the deal to be finalized. The sentiment Roberts expresses is correct - the O’s are headed in the right direction.

Roberts’ extension follows the six-year, $66 million deal the Orioles gave budding star right fielder Nick Markakis last month and ensures that the team will have a good foundation to build upon during the next several years. Though first baseman/designated hitter Aubrey Huff and third baseman Melvin Mora will be eligible for free agency after the 2009 season and may not be back - whether by their own choice or the club’s - Orioles President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has stockpiled a good number of talented young players through trades and the draft.

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Most notable among them is switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters, the team’s first-round selection in 2007. The Georgia Tech product was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2008 after hitting .355 with 27 home runs and 91 RBI while splitting time between advanced Class A Frederick and double-A Bowie. Wieters may or may not be the Orioles’ catcher on Opening Day, but even if he starts the season with triple-A Norfolk - as MacPhail has indicated he likely will - he’ll get the call soon enough. All indications are that he’ll be an impact player when he does.

Markakis isn’t the Orioles’ only talented young outfielder. Adam Jones was part of the haul the O’s got from the Mariners for Erik Bedard last offseason and showed promise by hitting .270 with nine homers as a rookie in 2008. The .314 average and 25 homers he hit in triple-A in 2007 are more indicative of his long-term potential. He could be joined in the outfield this season by Felix Pie, acquired from the Cubs for lefty Garrett Olson. The title-hungry Cubs didn’t have the patience to allow Pie - who has excelled in the minors but has a .223 average in 260 career major league at bats - to develop, but the rebuilding Orioles certainly do. Nolan Reimold, the Orioles’ second-round pick in 2005, hit .284 with 25 homers in double-A last season and also looks nearly ready to contribute. And it would be a mistake to overlook Lou Montanez, who can no longer be considered a prospect at age 27 but hit .335 with 27 jacks for Bowie last season and then held his own in the bigs.

The Orioles’ biggest current weakness is starting pitching, but Jeremy Guthrie is a good young arm to build around and there’s help on the way. Chris Tillman - who also came over from Seattle in the Bedard trade - made major strides last season, going 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 154 K’s in 135 2/3 innings as a 20-year-old in double-A, and is considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. 23-year-old righty David Hernandez went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA for Bowie and led the Eastern League with 166 strikeouts in 141 innings, while teammate Brad Bergesen was named the circuit’s Pitcher of the Year after going 15-6 with a 3.22 ERA. Righty Jake Arrieta justified Baltimore’s decision to give him a fifth-round record $1.1 million bonus in 2007 by earning Pitcher of the Year honors in the advanced Class A Carolina League. And Brian Matusz, widely considered the best left-handed starter in college baseball last season, is set to debut this season after being taken with the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft.

Prospects are just prospects until they actually prove something in the big leagues and the Orioles’ recent history is filled with letdowns, but make no mistake about it - there is reason for optimism in Baltimore. They may not turn the corner this season, but Roberts is certainly justified in believing that better days are not far off.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

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