- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

During baseball’s amateur draft in 2003, Young Harris College coach Rick Robinson received a call from a Baltimore radio station. Robinson’s ace starter and star outfielder, Nick Markakis, had just been selected seventh by the Orioles after a fantastic second season at the Georgia junior college.

Most teams projected Markakis as a pitcher. The Cincinnati Reds had taken him each of the previous two years with the intention of using him on the mound, and Robinson was told 29 teams graded Markakis as a first-round pitching prospect.

Much to Robinson’s surprise, the radio hosts said Baltimore planned to develop Markakis as a position player.

“And I go, ‘No, you must mean pitcher - the left-handed pitcher,’ ” Robinson said. “And they go, ‘No, they drafted him as an outfielder.’ And I go, ‘No, that’s not right - not as the seventh pick.’ ”

After all, Markakis went 12-0 with a 1.68 ERA that year, striking out 160 batters and allowing only 65 hits in 96 2/3 innings. Lefties who throw 96 mph with what Robinson called “a power, major league breaking ball” don’t come along often.

But Markakis also batted .439, slugged 21 home runs and drove in 92 runs - even though he was initially recruited as just a pitcher before injuries to a few regulars forced him into the lineup the previous season. Hitters like that aren’t very common, either.

“I knew Nick was a really good hitter, but it was just hard to believe that somebody was going to pass up a power left-handed arm,” Robinson said.

That’s exactly what the Orioles did. Robinson said he thinks they were the only team to have Markakis rated as a first-round hitter, and now they’re looking pretty smart. Six years later, he is one of the game’s best young outfielders, hitting at least .291 every season of his major league career and smacking 20 homers twice.

Markakis, along with center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters, will be counted on to anchor a formidable offense during the next decade. But - like Markakis - Jones and Wieters also had the potential to go in the first round as pitchers.

For Joe Jordan, Baltimore’s director of scouting, the versatility and experience of those players are especially attractive because of their potential once they start concentrating on hitting or pitching.

“They really get to look at the game from both angles,” Jordan said. “When you’re going to move a guy that’s been pitching strictly to a position player [or vice versa], he should be ahead of a lot of guys.”

Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said the number of college players capable of pitching and hitting at a high level has been on the rise.

“I think you’re seeing more and more, particularly in college, where scholarships are limited,” Hall said. “Anytime you can find somebody that can be a two-way player, it’s basically like getting two players for the price of one.”

Jones batted above .400 as a high school senior while going 3-3 with a 2.71 ERA and roughly 1.5 strikeouts an inning. He threw in the mid-90s with an above-average curveball, but play at shortstop made him an appealing prospect as a position player.

Jones preferred to play every day. Seattle, which drafted him with a compensatory first-round pick in 2003, obliged.

“I’m too athletic to pitch,” Jones said. “I like to swing the bat; I like to hit. I told the Mariners to give me the opportunity to play short, and if I couldn’t hit, then move me to the mound. I remember a lot of scouts saying I would never hit myself out of A ball.”

Jones has proved those scouts wrong, switching to the outfield in the upper minors and earning a spot in the All-Star Game at age 23. There wasn’t nearly as much debate about what Wieters would play in the majors - he was a switch-hitting catcher at Georgia Tech who showcased excellent power and plate discipline.

“I couldn’t very well send a guy out as a pitcher when he’s a switch hitter that’s going to hit in the middle of your lineup and that you think is going to catch, because that’s so hard to find,” Jordan said of Wieters, the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft.

It’s not as if Wieters were an ordinary pitcher, though. He served as the Yellow Jackets’ primary closer his freshman year. He threw 41 innings out of the bullpen that season, compiling six saves and a sub-3.00 ERA. Wieters also had a fastball that consistently reached 94 to 95 mph, with two solid secondary pitches and excellent control.

“I liked him a lot as a pitcher - I thought Wieters had a chance to be John Smoltz on the mound,” Jordan said. “He was really good.”

Hall saw that potential, too. He still insists Wieters could make it as a pitcher if catching doesn’t work out. But Wieters’ innings were cut dramatically each year so he could develop behind the plate. During his junior season, the final one before Baltimore signed him, Wieters threw just 14 1/3 innings with a 7.53 ERA.

“The more he started catching for us, the harder it was for us to keep him fresh and be able to pitch him,” Hall said. “It became a delicate balance as he got older, just for us to keep him together and keep him healthy and keep him fresh.”

Wieters’ first choice was to hit and catch, and pitching sometimes hindered his progress in those areas.

“It was fun doing it, but it definitely took its toll on the body and on the arm - sort of took a little away from catching,” he said.

So far, hitting has worked out well for all three. They still get a chance to showcase their arms - Wieters gunned down 36 percent of would-be base stealers in the minors, Markakis leads the American League with 11 outfield assists and Jones ranks in the top 10 in that category.

Maybe someday they’ll get a chance to pitch an inning in a blowout and briefly realize what could have been.

“I’ve always thought about that,” Jones said. “But I’d probably be dead the next day - my shoulder would probably be killing me.”

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