The Baltimore Orioles often are criticized for being too thin in their farm system, and too reliant on expensive free agents at the expense of developing young talent.

Today the Orioles have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse that trend. Through a complicated combination of trades, compensation for free agent losses and their position in the draft order, the Orioles have four first-round picks in the 1999 amateur draft, and seven of the first 50 picks, the most for any club in the draft's 25-year history.

The Orioles have the 13th, 18th, 21st, 23rd, 34th, 44th and 50th selections. This year's draft is considered pitching-heavy, and General Manager Frank Wren said the Orioles likely will lean that way.

"Historically, you only get the real premium position players real high or you don't get them at all," Wren said. "But you can get pitching on down in the draft."

The bounty has a cost. It will take around $9 million for the Orioles to sign all their picks. But Wren said he and scouting director Tony DeMacio have received assurances from majority owner Peter Angelos that this will not be a problem.

"I have met with Peter," Wren said, "and he's all for us being aggressive in the draft and doing what it takes."

The draft will begin by conference call at around 1 p.m. With the first pick, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are likely to select outfielder Josh Hamilton of Raleigh, N.C., or right-handed pitcher Josh Beckett of Spring, Tex.

In somewhat of a rarity, there are no elite prospects with ties to the Washington area. However, a handful of players, particularly Potomac (Va.) High School All-Mets Danny Lopaze and Jose Pabon and West Springfield All-Met pitcher Joe Saunders, could be selected somewhere in the early rounds of the three-day draft.

"I think those guys all have a chance to go in the top five rounds," said one major league scout assigned to the Mid-Atlantic region. "It depends what kind of signability people think they have. They could all go real, real high; or they could all sink a round or two."

After Lopaze, Pabon and Saunders, Gar-Field High pitcher-infielder Jeff Baker, The Post's All-Met Player of the Year this season, might be the next-best Washington area draft candidate. Other area high school prospects include Marshall right-hander Tom Bell and Damascus right-hander Ryan Childs.

The lack of position players could improve the status of Lopaze and Pabon, both of whom have signed letters-of-intent to play for Virginia Commonwealth. Saunders has signed with Virginia Tech, Baker with Clemson. If a high school senior goes to a four-year college, he cannot be drafted again until after his junior year.

The top college prospects in the area are Maryland shortstop Casey Trout (Arundel High) and left-hander Tom Curtis, George Washington left-hander Tom Baginsky and Virginia right-hander Kevin Shrout.

Among college players with local ties who might be drafted are James Madison right-hander Blair Dehart (Herndon) and Virginia Tech catcher Barry Gauch (Woodbridge).

Sheinin reported from Seattle, Barr from Washington.