SARASOTA, Fla. — If Matt Wieters ends up being named the 2015 American League Comeback Player of the Year in November, he might have to reject the award because of a glaring semantic inaccuracy.
By all accounts, Wieters doesn't have anywhere to come back from, because he never really left the Orioles. He never stopped making a significant contribution to the team that reached the American League Championship Series.
He didn't play in any games after injuring his elbow in May and undergoing Tommy John ligament reconstruction, but he returned to the clubhouse as soon as practical, and he did something a lot of veteran players might not have. He worked tirelessly to make sure the team didn't miss him behind the plate as it ran away with the AL East title.
Wieters mentored longtime Orioles minor league catcher Caleb Joseph and helped newly acquired Nick Hundley get acclimated to the pitching staff and AL hitters. Wieters was a constant sounding board for both.
"I think that's what's been so special about our clubhouse in general, is that we all care for each other and all want to be there and help any way we can," Wieters said. "I felt that I still had something that might be able to help in the smallest amount to help this team get as far as we could get. If possible, I wanted to help out any way I could."
Wieters hopes that kind of altruism won't be as necessary this year, and he is not alone. The Orioles are depending on his successful and productive return to help offset the free-agent departures of major league home run king Nelson Cruz and steady right fielder Nick Markakis.
That isn't exactly a sure thing. Wieters had to push back his rehabilitation schedule two weeks ago because of some elbow tendinitis, so his availability for April remains uncertain. He won't be ready to go on Opening Day, but there is little question that his presence on the field and off will be crucial to the club's chances of returning to the playoffs.
Never mind that the Orioles got there largely without him behind the plate last season. Joseph and Hundley more than held their own defensively, and the trio's combined offensive numbers were certainly adequate. But it still is impossible to fully replace the value of a Gold Glove Award winner and All-Star.
"I think the question is, 'What is hard to replace?'" manager Buck Showalter said. "A lot of it is the confidence the pitchers have in him, the awareness of situations, the consistency of his mentality. Let's face it: Offense is just an added bonus if you can do it. With Matt, when you put the offense on top of what he brings defensively, that's the separator. There are maybe four or five guys you could talk about in that same breath."
The offensive production a terrific defensive catcher provides might well be gravy under normal circumstances, but there's no way to undersell the difference Wieters could make if he is healthy for most of the year and can pick up where he left off in May.
He appeared poised for a career year when his arm started to hurt last spring. He was batting .309, and his five homers and 18 RBIs in 26 games projected to 27 homers and 97 RBIs over 140 games — the number he played the year before.
Of course, it's not reasonable to expect that kind of production based on about a month of the season, especially after Wieters struggled to get his swing down this spring. But he was expected to be that kind of hitter when he was the fifth overall draft pick in 2007.
If you want to know how much Wieters' presence — playing or not playing — was felt, just ask the man who waited seven years to get a chance to play regularly. Joseph said recently that he depended so heavily on Wieters last year that he probably would not be in training camp this year if not for the mentoring he got from the man he had to replace.
"He was huge," Joseph said. "He was pretty much here every day. It was comforting for a first-year guy, especially a catcher, being able to have him to talk to about certain situations, certain pitchers — 'What are they like?' and 'What do you think about this?' and 'What do you see?' — and you can bounce all kinds of ideas off him.
"You can do that with the coaching staff and you're going to get positive feedback. And then there's just another level to have a teammate be able to do it, and such a respected player like Matt."
Wieters has a lot riding on this season, but you'd never know it by talking to him. He is in the last year of his contract with the Orioles, and a big 2015 would set him up for a huge payday. But he's not interested in looking that far ahead.
For that matter, he's not much interested in looking back at last year, either, or worrying about making up for lost time.
"No, it's hard enough just missing the season," he said. "You can't let missing the season and all the disappointment that came out of last year spill into this year, or try to make up for last year. It's more that I'm just glad that I'm going to get back healthy and playing this year and last year's over. And it doesn't matter if you had a great year, an injured year or a bad year the year before. You've got to forget about it and go into this year, and that's ultimately the only way you're going to have success."
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There has been a lot of talk about leadership around the Orioles this spring, much of it tied to the loss of Markakis, but there is no doubt in the clubhouse that Wieters provides a ton of it, too.
"For sure, you can throw 'leader' out there," veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy said of Wieters. "He's a guy people listen to, and he goes out there and plays every day, at least every day for a catcher. He plays more games than any other catcher, so he's going to be a big, big part of this team."
Orioles officials are preparing for the possibility that Wieters will not be here a year from now. He's represented by agent Scott Boras, who is known for taking his clients to auction, and a big season might price him out of the organization.
Wieters insists that his uncertain contract situation will not have any impact on his No. 1 priority this year.
"Everybody in this clubhouse should be thinking first, 'What do we need to do to get to the playoffs, and what do we need to do to win a ring?'" Wieters said. "And that's been our goal in this clubhouse for years now. It's a long season, a grueling season, and you have to take it slowly, one game at a time, but if that's not your goal, you're in the wrong clubhouse."