At first glimpse, catcher Matt Wieters didn't appear to be limited as the Orioles held their first spring training workout for pitchers and catchers Friday afternoon at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex.
The Orioles All-Star and Gold Glove winner took batting practice with the club's other catchers, spraying pitches into the outfield from both sides of the plate. He caught the first day of bullpen sessions and the only noticeable difference was that he softly lobbed the ball back to the pitcher.
But there's no secret that this spring training is much different for the 28-year-old pending free agent as he recovers from right elbow ligament reconstruction surgery last June, an injury that cost Wieters all but 26 games of his 2014 season.
His healthy return from Tommy John surgery would be not only be a tremendous boost to the Orioles' hopes of building on last year's success — the team is banking on it.
"We missed him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I don't care how good our guys that took up the slack were. We missed him. A lot of the things he brought more than just offensively and defensively. It's good to see him back and smiling, knowing that the end game is not too far away. I was talking to him [telling him] he was going to catch in intrasquad games. He said, 'Beautiful, fine.'"
Both Wieters and the Orioles are optimistic that their timetable — barring a setback — will allow Wieters to return when they open the regular season on April 6 at Tampa Bay. Wieters can now perform all catching activities with the exception of throwing — his progression has reached the point to which he entered Friday having thrown back-to-back days from 120 feet — and he will keep participating in defensive drills and catch bullpen sessions during spring training workouts.
Until Wieters is cleared to throw in games — he's slated to receive that clearance on March 17, exactly nine months after renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery — the Orioles' plan is for Wieters to build at-bats as a designated hitter once exhibition games start, and Showalter said Wieters will play in several road games — a rarity for most established starters — to get the at-bats he needs to prepare for the season.
And even though Wieters, one of the best throwing catchers in the game, won't throw in games until the middle of next month, he will build innings behind the plate in intrasquad and simulated games in preparation for the season.
"There's still a lot of ifs," Wieters said. "God-willing, everything will keep going how it's going and keep progressing with it. ... If I've been able to hit and been able to really catch other than throw, it should be plenty of time if we can get those two weeks in before Opening Day. This whole year is going to be a matter of how the body feels. It's a surgery I've never gone through and not many catchers have, so it's going to be seeing how the body feels and go from there. … (I'm) very excited to be in camp, get to go through camp. I think I've been looking forward to this spring more than any other spring, just being able to go out there and play."
Even on the first day of workouts Friday, teammate Caleb Joseph, who helped fill in for Wieters last season, said he noticed a little new life in Wieters.
"Even suiting up and putting the gear on, I know he's been in uniform for a while now, but putting the gear on and participating, you can tell," Joseph said. "If you've known Matt long enough, you know he's not going to be extremely vocal about it — that's his nature — but you can tell there's an excitement of getting back into it. We're all excited for him. Whenever a teammate of his magnitude gets hurt, everybody feels it. You feel the anticipation with him, as well."
The Orioles have taken several precautions in case Wieters isn't ready for Opening Day. Aside from Joseph, who performed admirably behind the plate as a rookie, the Orioles also still have Pigtown native Steve Clevenger, who made the club last spring as Wieters' backup. They signed nonroster catchers J.P. Arencibia and Ryan Lavarnway and also invited minor leaguer Brian Ward, who is considered a strong defensive backstop.
"It feels great to see him back," Joseph said. "I saw him throw a few days ago and he looked amazing. … It's exciting for him because Matt's the guy. All five of us know that. He was even a major part of our success even without him playing, so to have him there, doing the bullpens, doing the drills even if he can't exactly participate, just shows how much of a leader he is. From the catching position, you want to be an extension of the manager and Buck leads and Matt leads. So when Matt's out there, I just try to follow the line and follow him because he's the guy."
Showalter is confident in the group of catchers the organization has acquired in case Wieters isn't ready.
"We've got a lot of guys to pick from and, for the most part, they stay in the mix whether they make it or not," Showalter said. "I like that flexibility. The familiarity we have with the job Caleb did last year certainly works for him, but it doesn't mean it favors him. I don't think he expects that. There's still some unknown about when Matt's going to be able to [return]. But again, I think it's more about when, not if, as far as he's concerned. I like where we are catching. It's a good group."
Still, Wieters is confident the two weeks of catching in games should be enough time to be ready to open the season with the club, especially considering he will already be doing all catching activities other than throwing.
"I want to get every part of my body in as best shape as I can for being here early, and the arm is the last thing to come," Wieters said. "The big thing is [I] just don't want to have anything that is getting fatigued or not get ready ... I think a lot of those, we're getting the swings in, getting a lot of things in. By getting behind the plate and just catching without making a lot of throws to bases is going to help me get ready for the season."
Spring training is instrumental for a catcher. It's important to build innings gradually as well as build up to catch back-to-back days. Fortunately for the Orioles, Wieters has caught many of the club's pitchers in spring training, so he doesn't have to get accustomed to many new arms.
"The big part of it is getting to know your pitchers and what they like to do, and thankfully we have a lot of guys who I've caught in the heat of the battle," Wieters said. "At the same time, there's a lot of checkmarks you have to go through during spring training, so just mentally when Opening Day is here, you feel ready to play baseball."
In the Orioles' first workout on Friday, Wieters already seemed back to form. The other catchers flocked to him between catching bullpens, as did Showalter. Wieters was already getting in the manager's ear after catching left-hander T.J. McFarland's bullpen session.
"I was talking to him today," Showalter said. "He's already breaking down guys and talking about catching McFarland you really see why he's successful. He's already in midseason analytical form."
Now the Orioles hope Wieters' physical recovery follows suit.
"It's going to look different this year than any other spring has to me," Wieters said. "But there are ways that we can get those checkmarks by a different route, where at least whenever go time is, whenever I'm ready to catch in a game, we feel comfortable getting back there."