Outfield threesome gives O's high hopes

Adam Jones touched 96 mph on the radar gun in high school and Nick Markakis was a star pitcher at Young Harris junior college in Georgia, but Baltimore manager Dave Trembley has no plans to use either player in an emergency, Jose Canseco-like role this season.

If the day comes when the Orioles are losing 18-2 and the bullpen is fried, backup infielder Oscar Salazar better be prepared to break out his fastball and his curve. The skipper is not committing professional suicide.

"Jones and Markakis ain't pitching," Trembley said. "Could you imagine if I put them out there and something happened? I would be getting a phone call from Mr. [Peter] Angelos telling me, 'Your services are no longer required.'"

Keeping those precocious kids out of the infield is a chore in itself. Jones played shortstop in the minor leagues and Markakis has a few moves around the first base bag, and they enjoy sneaking onto the infield dirt for kicks during batting practice. But Orioles coach Juan Samuel is on alert to send them back to the outfield without any supper -- or fungoes.

"They bug the heck out of me and tease me about playing the infield," Trembley said. "I keep telling them, 'Get out in the outfield.' It's kind of a running joke between us."

Jocularity aside, Trembley is a walking Billy Joel lyric when it comes to his outfielders: He loves them just the way they are.

The Orioles, as usual, are poised for August and September irrelevance. They're 13½ games behind Boston in the American League East and headed for their 12th straight losing season. The starting pitching is a mess, they have the third-worst run differential in the game, and they've hurt themselves on several occasions with absent-minded baserunning and fundamental missteps.

On Monday night in Seattle, they went down meekly in a 5-0 loss to the Mariners. Markakis' fourth-inning single was the only thing standing between Jarrod Washburn and a perfect game. The loss dropped the Orioles to 2-9 on the West Coast this season.

Still, if beleaguered Baltimore fans can find the patience to view this season through a long-term prism, there's reason for optimism. Star catching prospect Matt Wieters is getting more comfortable by the day, and the rotational shortcomings are easier to stomach with Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta tearing it up for Triple-A Norfolk and Brian Matusz averaging 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings between Class A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.

The O's also have baseball's most dynamic young outfield. It's enough to make the old-timers in town reflect wistfully on the Frank Robinson-Don Buford-Paul Blair days at Memorial Stadium.

Jones, 23, and Markakis and Nolan Reimold, both 25, give Baltimore a threesome worth envying. They're athletic, affordable and loaded with promise and tools. Factor in the contribution of DH and occasional left fielder Luke Scott, who has 16 homers and a .569 slugging percentage, and no one cares that erstwhile phenom Felix Pie is as big a washout in Baltimore as he was in Chicago.

"We're still under .500, but this is a different scenario than '04, '05 and '06," said hitting coach Terry Crowley. "Now we have legitimate young guys who are going to get better because they can play the game. It might not come to the surface every day because of their youth and inexperience. But when the smoke clears, these guys can play the game."

• Jones, acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade, is making good on Trembley's April declaration that he might be the most improved player in baseball this season. He's hitting .305, drawing enough walks to keep opposing pitchers honest, making great defensive plays seem routine, and playing the game with the panache of a kid who knows he's good.

Validation arrived Sunday in the form of an All-Star Game selection. Barring a major surprise, it will be the first of many for Jones.

• Markakis has suffered from a mysterious power drop-off recently and has only one home run since May 21. But he's batting .348 with runners in scoring position, ranks fourth in the American League in doubles and is tied for the league lead in outfield assists with eight.

• Reimold, the AL Rookie of the Month for June, has nine home runs and a .471 slugging percentage in 155 at-bats. The Orioles drafted him out of Bowling Green in the second round in 2005 largely because of his power. After being held back by foot, back and oblique injuries in the minors, Reimold is showing the Orioles a more athletic side than the scouting reports suggested.

Terry Crowley We're still under .500, but this is a different scenario than '04, '05 and '06. Now we have legitimate young guys who are going to get better because they can play the game.

-- Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley

"I didn't know he could run like that," Jones said. "He's a gazelle."

Reimold is also streaky, befitting a young hitter with a long swing. After batting .320 in June, he has one hit in 20 at-bats in July.

Scouts, writers, baseball executives and fans love to play the comparison game, and handy reference points abound for each of these guys. Jones has elicited comparisons to Mike Cameron, Eric Davis, George Hendrick and a young Don Baylor -- with a significantly better throwing arm. Reimold is generating lots of Jason Bay mentions because of his stance, his swing and his rangy 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame.

And Markakis? Hold onto your Boog Powell hickory-smoked beef sandwich.

"I was talking to one of the scouts a month ago and he said, 'Markakis reminds me of a left-handed Al Kaline, because he does everything well but he doesn't do it very flashy,'" said Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. "That's a pretty good comparison. But he reminds me more of George Brett because he's so good at hitting the ball to left, center and right. He really can hit the ball where it's pitched."

Markakis possesses old-school sensibilities, for sure. When a harmless pop fly dropped between him and second baseman Brian Roberts in an 11-4 loss in Anaheim on Saturday, Markakis was quick to accept responsibility.

"I take the blame," he told reporters after the game. "In that situation, it's easier for me to come in on the ball."

Two years ago, Markakis played in Baltimore's first 161 games. After he went on a 12-for-19 tear in the final week, Trembley benched him in the season finale to protect his .300 batting average. Markakis was upset with the decision, and took his protest into the manager's office before being overruled.

"He got mad at me," Trembley said. "He didn't care [about the .300 batting average]. How many guys are like that? Are you kidding me? This is a selfish business. To me, that tells you all you need to know about him."

Markakis' most impressive non-baseball skill is his ability to balance common household objects on his chin. He can do it with a vacuum cleaner and a shopping cart, and was recently photographed by ESPN The Magazine balancing a folding chair.

Most days, Markakis has enough on his plate lugging around the expectations of a city that's desperate for a winning baseball team. The Orioles committed to Markakis with a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension in January. In response, Markakis and his wife, Christina, started a foundation to help needy children in Maryland. It was their way of giving back after the birth of their first child, son Taylor, in March.

Because of his family heritage and last name, Markakis is a huge favorite with the local and national Greek communities. In late May, while the city was abuzz over Wieters' arrival, Markakis ducked into a small conference room in the basement at Camden Yards and received the Harry Agganis Award from the American Hellenic Progressive Educational Association. He accepted a plaque, took a pledge, posed for multiple photographs and signed every autograph before departing for the clubhouse.

In media interviews, Markakis tends to rely on clichés and make liberal use of the word "awesome." He's unfailing polite, cooperative and bland in the Chase Utley mold. Trembley chalks it up to shyness, but Markakis gives the impression there are dozens of things he would rather be doing than talking about himself.

"He's not somebody who needs to be on the champagne circuit," said Andy MacPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations.

Although Roberts is Baltimore's acknowledged team leader, Markakis is, in many ways, the backbone of the new Orioles. He shows up each day ready to play, and vents over poor at-bats by throwing the ball to Jones with a little extra zip when they're warming up in the outfield between innings. That's the extent of it.

"It doesn't matter what situation he's thrown in. It's the same face," Jones said. "There's no pressure. There's no worry. There's no such thing to him. He's the most even-keeled player we have."

Appearances notwithstanding, Markakis sweats the little things. He's a finicky hitter by nature, and when he was on the wrong end of a few generous called strikes in May and June, he widened his strike zone and got himself in trouble. Now he has one home run in 168 at-bats, and it's no stretch to think his power brownout cost him a spot in the All-Star Game.

"Nick is definitely one of those guys who's going to feel the responsibility," MacPhail said. "He recognizes his importance to the franchise and feels like he has to do everything. We have to make him understand that if you rely on the same two or three guys every night over six months and 162 games, you're sunk. Our job is to try and get as much talent as we can around him to share the load."

The Orioles are fulfilling their end of the bargain. Now if Trembley can find a way to keep his outfielders in their natural positions, they'll be fine. As talented as these guys are up close, they look even better from a distance.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.