Shoestring catch

The Baltimore Sun

Matt Wieters was prepared to sign a contract Wednesday night that would make him part of the Orioles' future, the franchise catcher that has eluded them. He also was prepared to return to Georgia Tech for his senior year and re-enter the draft in 2008.

Unsure which direction he would go until shortly before the midnight deadline, Wieters remained confident in the process and the people working toward a deal, including representative Scott Boras. He knew that he controlled his fate. But he wasn't as certain about his nerves.

"You get sweaty palms and you get nervous, but at the same time I knew I had Scott negotiating for me," he said last night during a conference call with reporters. "Now that the business side is over, I just look forward to getting out there and playing."

With less than an hour left before the midnight deadline to sign Wieters, the Orioles and Boras were nearly $6 million apart, according to baseball sources. Andy MacPhail, president of baseball operations, said an agreement was reached at 11:51 p.m.

The Orioles would have received a compensation pick, the sixth overall, along with a tremendous amount of backlash from a fan base that desperately wanted the switch-hitting catcher.

"Of course, you're cognizant of the potential fan reaction," MacPhail said. "We made a judgment on what was appropriate and what wasn't, and if we decided it wasn't appropriate, we were prepared to explain why."

Wieters signed a minor league contract that included a $6 million signing bonus that ranked as the second richest in baseball history, trailing the $6.1 million given to Arizona's Justin Upton in 2005. But Upton's bonus is spread over five years. Wieters will receive $3 million upon approval from the commissioner's office, and $3 million in the middle of next season.

Boras said he spoke with MacPhail on Wednesday morning and again about three hours before the deadline. They dissected the other signings and how the dollar figures would affect the deal for Wieters.

"There were numbers floating around, and the numbers that are on the face of a contract don't always represent the value because of the payment dates that follow," Boras said. "Our theme with the Orioles was we expected the top pitcher in the draft and the top position player to have parity in what they would receive in net value.

"Matt had given me some very solid direction well before coming into the day about what his goals were, and his goals were fairness."

Wieters remained at his home in Goose Creek, S.C., early yesterday, while the Orioles tried to arrange his physical exam. They're expected to wait until Monday to present him to the Camden Yards crowd.

They also must decide where he'll begin his professional career. One possibility is short-season Single-A Aberdeen, then a promotion to Single-A Frederick for the Carolina League playoffs - the same arrangement they had with Nolan Reimold and Garrett Olson.

Had a deal not been reached, Wieters, the fifth overall selection, would have returned to school.

"Either way, I knew that I'd be fine," he said, "but when it came down to it, I felt like the decision I made was best for me at the time."

Joe Jordan, the Orioles' director of scouting, had just about given up hope.

"I was pretty much at that point when Andy called me," Jordan said. "I know Andy looked at me all week thinking, 'I'm not buying this,' because we were so far apart. I guess maybe it was a game of chicken, and in the end we got together.

"Once Matt and the people who were helping him knew we were really committed to what we were doing and what we were offering, it got done."

MacPhail, in Toronto, and owner Peter Angelos spoke by phone with Boras. Meanwhile, Jordan and his administrative assistant, Marcy Zerhusen, worked and worried from the third floor of the B&O; warehouse, maintaining dialogue with one of Boras' representatives while staying in contact with MacPhail.

"There were a lot of things going on, just trying to gather information and see where we were," Jordan said. "In the end, it came together quickly. Marcy and I high-fived each other.

"From about 7 o'clock on, it seemed like every 15 or 20 minutes we were getting updates from Major League Baseball, as far as signings. As close as it was getting to the deadline, you could just see there was a pecking order. And as much as we're trying to push this thing along, it's not going to happen."

Not until other first-rounders reached agreements, including the Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakis at No. 2 and the Chicago Cubs' Josh Vitters at No. 3 - leaving Wieters as the last domino to fall.

"I don't think, in these kinds of situations, that you really know if it's going to happen," Boras said. "The way these contracts work, it's a fair deal for everyone. Skill-wise, this is an important signing for the Baltimore Orioles."

Boras said he told the Orioles that Wieters would consider signing if they agreed to pay him the net present value of the contract for high school pitcher Rick Porcello, another Boras client who received a four-year major league deal from the Detroit Tigers, as the 27th pick, worth $7 million, including a $3.58 million bonus.

"We basically said, 'Look, we will be fair in this market,' " Boras said.

Wieters batted .358 with 10 home runs as a junior. He has been compared to catchers Joe Mauer in Minnesota and Jason Varitek in Boston, and Jordan places him "somewhere in between."

"Matt Wieters is a very polished defensive catcher with a very strong arm," Jordan said. "I've seen him throw 96 mph off the mound. It's an accurate, strong arm, and pitchers love throwing to him. I probably like his swing a little more from the left side, though he's hit from both sides of the plate, and he projects to have power from both sides.

"This guy, for me, is going to be a .280, .285 hitter with 20 to 30 home runs when it all shakes out, an annual All-Star behind the plate."

The Orioles will wait to determine when he'll make his major league debut. Catcher Ramon Hernandez's contract runs through 2009, which could factor into the decision.

"One of the questions he asked me before the draft was, he wanted to talk about our catching situation," Jordan said. "He's aware of the contract terms of Hernandez. This is a smart guy. He knows what he's getting into, and he absolutely knows it's a good fit."

It became a perfect one as midnight approached Wednesday.

"In my heart, I hadn't let go of this. I thought it was going to happen," Jordan said.

He paused for a few seconds, shook his head and chuckled.

"It was a big test."

The call came at 11:55 p.m. It was MacPhail, speaking the only words Jordan wanted to hear:

"Matt Wieters is a Baltimore Oriole."

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