I was watching the Phillies and Dodgers play last night, and a classmate pointed out that the Orioles drafted Jayson Werth in the first round way back in 1997; I did not know this. Inevitably, this sparked the "Who was he traded for?" question. Some quick Googling revealed the answer: John Bale, after the 2000 season. Yes, a 27-year left-handed relief pitcher who would throw a total of 26.2 innings for the Orioles. In hindsight, it would be nice to have Werth on the club now, and this has sparked the typical "The Orioles are idiots!" comments on various blogs. But were they? In short, yes.
Werth was drafted (as a catcher) out of high school with the 22nd pick of the 1997 draft. He signed quickly and reported to the Orioles Gulf Coast League affiliate. There, he batted .295/.432/.398 over 111 plate appearances. He walked just as much as he struck out (22 times; 19.8%), showing great plate discipline for an 18-year old a few weeks removed from his high school graduation. The next year, he played 120 games for Delmarva, notching a .265/.364/.387 line in 476 plate appearances. He struck out about the same (92 times; 19.3%) but walked a little less (50 times; 10.5%), though still at a very acceptable rate. The 1999 season saw the now 20-year old Werth promoted to Frederick, where he posted a .305/.403/.394 over 279 plate appearances, cutting back on the strikeouts and upping the walks (37 times each; 13.3%). He hadn't shown much power, hitting just 12 home runs in his career to this point, but his knowledge of the strike zone was obviously well-developed. The Orioles, perhaps a bit prematurely, promoted him to Bowie where Werth showed off the same skill set: .273/.364/.355 in 144 plate appearances with 17 walks (11.8%) and 26 strikeouts (18.1%).
After that 1999 season, Werth garned some acclaim as a top-prospect; he was named the #52 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Plate discipline is a valuable skill, and the potential for Werth to be an offensive-minded catcher rightly made him a young player with lots of upside. Werth split the 2000 season between Bowie and Frederick (I can't find the dates he spent with each club), where he produced virtually identical numbers to his 1999 season: a combined .240/.358/.362 in 435 plate appearances with 64 walks (14.7%) and 65 strikeouts (14.9%). He was again named a top prospect by Baseball America (#48), but the Orioles were apparently unimpressed, perhaps in part because they knew Werth would not stick at catcher. Despite fielding a team that went 74-88 in 2000, the club chose to give up on its recent first round pick, deciding that what it really needed was a left-handed reliever who walked 3.65 batters per nine. Shockingly, this type of decision making led to a 63-98 record in 2001.
As if on cue, Werth's power began to develop in 2001. He hit 20 home runs in the Blue Jays minor league system, matching his career total, but he did need to move off catcher, shifting to play some first base in 2001 and the outfield by 2002. He spent the 2002 and 2003 seasons bouncing around the Toronto system, accumulating 104 Major League plate appearances before being traded to the Dodgers for reliever Jason Frasor. In Los Angeles, he showed significant potential as half of a valuable platoon (.290/.377/.690 vs LHP) in 2004, but he struggled in 2005 and then missed the 2006 season due to injury. After being granted free agency following the 2006 season, he caught on with Philadelphia and has been an excellent player for the past three seasons: .276/.376/.494, gaining more playing time with each successive season.
While the Orioles probably wouldn't have been the beneficiary of Werth's late-blossoming, their initial decision to trade him was still indefensible. Aside from the abhorent focus on batting average and not on-base abilities, teams that are rebuilding--as the Orioles were, or at least should have been, doing in 2000--should never value short-term roster construction over long-term potential. 21-year old prospects that have reached AA and exhibited impressive plate discipline are real prospects, even if they haven't yet developed the expected power; left-handed middle relievers are a dime a dozen. Fortunately, the Orioles have changed management and the new GM seems to understand this very concept. After all, he turned George Sherrill into Josh Bell.