FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -After another long workout, Koji Uehara walked into the Orioles' clubhouse yesterday morning with his translator, trainer and masseuse following closely behind. Uehara smiled at a reporter who was near his locker and then joked with a couple of his new teammates as about a dozen Japanese reporters watched his every move.
Several minutes later, Matt Wieters arrived at Fort Lauderdale Stadium flanked by fellow Orioles prospects Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez. Wieters unpacked his equipment bag before several team officials, players and reporters made their way to his locker.
No two Orioles will be watched more closely this spring than Uehara and Wieters, the pair representing two tenets of club president Andy MacPhail's rebuilding plan - international scouting and a focus on the amateur draft.
"This is an exciting time for Wieters, just like for Hernandez and Bergesen and all of those guys that have come up through our system and are here," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "It's a big event having Koji here. I think there are a lot of interesting story lines in spring training this year for the Orioles."
Uehara, one of the most decorated pitchers from Asia, signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles this offseason, becoming the organization's first Japanese pitcher. Over the next seven weeks, Uehara's goals are to acclimate himself to his new teammates and a new culture and prepare for a season in which he'll be counted on to deliver innings and wins.
"Obviously, I have to perform on the mound, and that's the most important thing," Uehara said through his interpreter, Jiwon Bang. "But after I do what I do on the mound, the social aspect comes in."
Wieters, the switch-hitting catcher who was presented with a team-record $6 million signing bonus after being selected fifth overall in the 2007 draft, returns to major league spring training camp as perhaps the game's best prospect. His focus is trying to play his way onto the Orioles' Opening Day roster even as team officials caution that he's likely to start the season in Triple-A.
"I think you come to every spring training trying to make the team, but more important than that, you're trying to work hard, and you're trying to get better yourself. That's my goal for spring training," said Wieters, 22, who hit .355 with 27 homers and 91 RBIs over 130 games split between Single-A and Double-A last season. "It's always good to get started again, and getting down here to the warm weather in Florida is never a bad gig. I'm looking forward to getting going."
Asked about his expectations for Wieters, Trembley said he wants the catcher to be "relaxed and confident" and make good use of his time with Gregg Zaun, the veteran the Orioles signed after trading Ramon Hernandez.
"Ramon was great for me last year," said Wieters, who met Zaun yesterday as most of the Orioles' pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Their first workout is this morning. "He was a great guy to learn from in spring training, and I was able to take his words to heart. It's always great to know that your organization has that kind of confidence in you and that sort of plan for the future."
Uehara, 33, who twice won Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award, will not only have to deal with high expectations, but he'll also have to do it while learning a new team, league, language and culture. That's one of the reasons the right-hander was in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, the first Oriole to arrive at spring training.
Uehara, who speaks very limited English, has the names, numbers and pictures of most of his teammates pasted on his locker. He has been studying the pictures the past couple of days so he can greet his teammates. When reliever Dennis Sarfate walked by his locker yesterday, Uehara grinned and said, "Number 45, Sarfate." In turn, Sarfate questioned several members of the Japanese media about the meaning of certain words.
Several Orioles vowed yesterday to make the pitcher, who went 112-62 with a 3.01 ERA in 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, more comfortable in his new environment. Zaun said he was considering buying Rosetta Stone language-learning software so he can learn some Japanese phrases. The catcher acknowledged that helping Uehara is one of his main priorities this spring.
Jamie Walker has told Uehara that he wants him to learn one word in English every day in exchange for the Orioles reliever being taught one word of Japanese daily. He sympathized with the pitcher, whose every move is being documented by the media.
"I don't know that he can [go to the bathroom] without one of them watching," Walker said. "I don't want that. He seems to handle it. I don't know anything about him, what he's done over there. But he's got a hell of a work ethic. I've been watching him, and he's going to help us."
Uehara said the environment is "easier" than he thought and the atmosphere around the clubhouse yesterday was much looser than he's used to in Japan.
"So far, so good," he said. "It's really exciting."