For top O's prospect Wieters, high praise, higher expectations

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Brian Roberts walked briskly from the dugout toward the batting cage one morning last week and waited for Matt Wieters to finish spraying balls around Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

When Wieters' batting practice round was done, Roberts, an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star, presented him with a cup of water as Orioles manager Dave Trembley, hitting coach Terry Crowley and first baseman Aubrey Huff broke into laughter.

Roberts' gesture was in mock deference to the newest Oriole, who is being touted as everything from a future Hall of Famer to the franchise savior before he has played a big league game.

"He's been great," Roberts said of the switch-hitting catcher. "Everybody loves him."

Wieters laughed and thanked Roberts, a typical understated reaction for the 22-year-old, who is perfectly content to fit in rather than stand out. That has been hard here, where Wieters, the fifth overall pick in 2007, has been under more scrutiny than any Oriole except Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara.

"He doesn't like attention," said Pam Wieters, Matt's mother. "I don't even talk to him about what I've read or what I've heard. As soon as I start to say something, he immediately changes the subject. He doesn't want to be the center of attention."

But there is no hiding from it. Not after Wieters put together in 2008 what Baseball Prospectus called the best minor league season in 40 years. He batted .355 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs in 130 games split between Single-A and Double-A. He was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year and anointed the sport's top prospect.

"You can take the best player to ever play the game, and you couldn't have expected him to come out of the chute this well," Orioles minor league director David Stockstill said. "No matter how much we expected out of Matt Wieters, he surpassed everything."

Wieters quickly dismissed the accolades when asked about them.

"It was great to have a good year last year, but that's over," he said. "I set my goals and expectations pretty high, and last year was one of the first years I've come close to reaching them. I have to bump up the goals a little bit higher this year."

Why wait?

Despite trading starting catcher Ramon Hernandez in December and watching Wieters bat .440 so far this spring, Orioles president Andy MacPhail said Wieters will likely start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

"This is a player that has had only one full year of experience and a little bit over 200 at-bats in Double-A," said MacPhail, who signed Gregg Zaun to bridge the gap to Wieters.

The decision has been - and will continue to be - hotly debated among Orioles fans and members of the national media, some of whom have written about Wieters this spring.

"I talked to a scout who saw him in [the Arizona Fall League], and he said to me that every day he spends in the minors is a total waste of time," said Kevin Goldstein, a writer for Baseball Prospectus. "If you know what his weaknesses are, I'd love to hear them. Offensively, the approach is there. He hits lefties and righties, shows plus power from both sides. He's an above-average defender with a plus arm.

"I think he's ready, and if you drop him in the lineup right now he'd be one of the best catchers in the league. He's a once-in-a-generation-type prospect, and he should get better over the next five years, which is terrifying."

The Orioles' decision, like the Tampa Bay Rays' last year involving top prospect Evan Longoria, might depend more on dollars than sense. If they wait to call up Wieters 13 days into the 2009 season, they'll have contractual control of him through the 2015 campaign, compared with one year earlier if he is their 2009 Opening Day catcher.

If they delayed his promotion until early June, they would also put off his arbitration until after 2012. This might loom large because Wieters is represented by Scott Boras, who doesn't often negotiate long-term deals for arbitration-eligible clients.

Asked whether he is concerned that starting Wieters in the minors will be viewed as strictly a financial decision, MacPhail said: "I don't particularly care about the perception. We have an obligation to do what is in the best interest for him and this franchise."

Before leaving for Fort Lauderdale for his second spring training, Wieters spoke to his father, Richard, who told his son, "Make them have a real hard decision."

Said Matt Wieters: "You always think you're ready. You have to have the confidence in yourself, but at the same time, I don't think it will be a letdown. Dave [Trembley] is great about being honest and letting you know what the organization is thinking, and I respect that. I'm going to be playing somewhere this year, and there's always something to learn."

'The real deal'

Wieters' status as an up-and-comer was cemented in the summer before his senior year in high school, when he was playing travel ball for a team coached by his father, who played in the minor leagues for six years. During one game, Wieters came in to pitch with the bases loaded and no outs and struck out the side on nine pitches. After the game, a scout approached Richard Wieters and told him his son, whose velocity was normally in the mid-80s, hit 95 mph on the radar gun.

"I've been around a lot of baseball, and I've never seen that," Richard Wieters said.

In one game against Miami during his freshman season at Georgia Tech, Wieters hit a two-run, ninth-inning homer to give the Yellow Jackets the lead and then pitched the bottom of the ninth to get the save. That prompted his teammates to start calling him "God."

"There are guys, and then there are special guys," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "And I've always said Matt is one of the special guys, just a cut above everybody else."

Thirty minutes before the midnight deadline for the Orioles to sign Wieters or lose his rights, he called his father and told him that he was likely headed back to Georgia Tech. The Orioles got the deal done with nary a minute to spare, presenting the catcher with a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus.

In his first two official professional at-bats for Single-A Frederick, Wieters homered.

"I was in the bullpen, and we were just laughing how massive those home runs were," Orioles pitching prospect Brad Bergesen said. "It was unbelievable. He's the first guy I've seen come in with that much hype and live up to it. He's the real deal."

Staying grounded

Wieters, who spends his free time golfing and hanging out with his new bride in their Atlanta home, remained thoroughly unimpressed with himself during his 2008 season, which Goldstein called "not just good, but historically good." His father, a certified public accountant, called him after his two-homer professional debut and said, "Good game," to which his son said, "I guess so."

"That's about all you're going to get," Richard said. "We're not going to have a big phone bill with him."

Pam Wieters, a high school teacher, started a scrapbook for her son and her daughter, Rebecca, who played volleyball at the College of Charleston and now is in graduate school at the University of Maryland.

"[Rebecca] will look through it now and then, but Matt won't look through it," Pam Wieters said. "He'll say, 'Someday I'll look at it, maybe when my career is over.' "

It's that humility that has impressed his veteran teammates this spring. When not on the field, Wieters spends much of his time sitting back and listening as other Orioles carry the conversation. When the catchers in camp took Uehara out to dinner, Zaun said Wieters said barely a word. Still, he was very much in his element, hanging out with teammates, talking baseball and just being one of the guys.

"The guy shows up every day to get his work in and keeps to himself pretty much," Zaun said. "He's very well-suited to be who he is and in the position that he's in. ... He handles himself exactly the way he's supposed to."

by the numbers

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters' college and pro statistics:

Year Team Avg. G 2B 3B HR RBI BB Slg.

2005 Georgia Tech .366 60 17 1 10 68 45 .581

2006 Georgia Tech .355 68 20 0 15 71 56 .606

2007 Georgia Tech .358 57 17 2 10 59 51 .592

2008 Frederick (A) .345 69 8 0 15 40 44 .576

Bowie (AA) .365 61 14 2 12 51 38 .625

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