Fresh off draft, he's breezing

The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK -- He towers over his peers but moves so fluidly that you hardly notice. His easy swing produces thunderous home runs to the opposite field. He maintains a relaxed grin as he signs autographs for lines of fans who probably couldn't name most of his teammates.

The Orioles knew Matt Wieters was an advanced prospect when they drafted the catcher and signed him to a team-record $6 million bonus last summer.

But the former Georgia Tech athlete has exceeded even their expectations in his professional debut, laying waste to the Single-A Carolina League as the No. 3 hitter for the Frederick Keys.

Wieters, who turns 22 next month, speaks matter-of-factly about his spectacular debut. "There's no nervousness," he says of breaking in. "It's still just baseball."

But others are less restrained.

"He's remarkable," says Frederick manager Tommy Thompson, shaking his head. "As good as I've seen."

Thompson scouted and instructed catchers for 17 years in the Chicago White Sox's system. But he brings up Robin Ventura and Frank Thomas - precocious prospects turned stars - when searching for comparisons.

"Everything there is to do in this game, he can do," Thompson says. "He's a gift. You might go a five- or 10-year span and not get one like him."

Opponents have already caught on. After Wieters hit a long homer to the opposite field at Myrtle Beach (most young players have to pull their deep shots), the Pelicans offered him few strikes the rest of the series.

"They're already treating him like the Barry Bonds of the Carolina League," Keys broadcaster Adam Pohl says.

Wieters is hitting .385 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in 18 games through Tuesday. He won Player of the Week in his first week as a professional.

He looks exceptionally calm at bat, ignoring errant pitches and flicking off-speed stuff up the middle as easily as he slams fastballs.

Last week, he traveled to Atlanta for the funeral of former college teammate and close friend Michael Hutts. He arrived back in Frederick mid-game. You're pinch hitting in the three hole, Thompson told him. Wieters grabbed a bat, fought off 10 pitches and singled up the middle.

Despite his hot start, the catcher says professional pitching is different from what he saw in college. "You definitely see a lot better arms," he says. "Maybe some of them are still figuring out how to pitch, but they challenge you a bit more."

Wieters' success is only a surprise in degree. He played exceptionally from the first day he laced his spikes at Georgia Tech, a traditional contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His power from both sides of the plate, strong throwing arm and quiet leadership prompted comparisons to former Yellow Jacket Jason Varitek.

Wieters even pitched out of the bullpen, maintaining the legacy of his dad, Richard, a former minor league pitcher.

Agent Scott Boras touted Wieters as a once-in-a-generation talent before the Orioles selected him fifth overall. (He probably would have gone higher if not for concerns about his price tag.)

Though he signed too late to play last season, Wieters was anointed the organization's best prospect and one of the top 20 in the game before this season.

"The lack of pro experience didn't bother me," says Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. "Because we're looking at what he's going to be down the road: a switch-hitting catcher with a lot of power and a good approach at the plate. He also has a rocket arm, and while he's big for a catcher, he's good behind the dish."

Wieters started spring training with the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I think it was a huge benefit to me," he says. "Just to see how those guys prepare for the day-to-day grind."

Wieters professes no specific goal dates for advancing to Double-A Bowie or Baltimore.

But Thompson knows his brush with the catcher isn't likely to last more than half a season.

"There are things about him you can't teach," the manager says. "The way he carries himself and the way other guys feed off him. He's got gifts."

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