Wieters's Major League Debut Set for Friday

By Dan Connolly
Baltimore Sun
Tuesday, May 26, 2009; 11:33 PM

For two years, scouts, writers and front-office types have gushed about Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, who will make his major league debut Friday against Dontrelle Willis and the Detroit Tigers.

The fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft is big and strong, can hit for average and power, has advanced defensive skills and the demeanor to handle a pitching staff.

Wieters is batting .305 with 5 home runs and 30 RBIs at Triple-A Norfolk. He's heated up lately, with 18 hits, including four homers and 18 RBIs, in his past 46 at-bats (.391 batting average).

"He is really starting to hit the ball he has been on quite a streak over the last 10 days," club president Andy MacPhail said Tuesday night. "He has made the progress, the power is starting to come. He is (hitting) over .300 as we speak. It 's time. It's time. He has done what he has needed to do at that level."

Starting Friday, he'll become the club's primary starter behind the plate.

"The lineup is up to the manager, but we didn't bring him up here to sit," MacPhail said. "Just like (rookie outfielder) Nolan Reimold. Nolan didn't come up here to sit. Matt Wieters isn't going to do a lot of sitting."

That's one thing Wieters, who turned 23 last Thursday, doesn't do well -- ride the bench. In the fifth game of Norfolk's season, Wieters injured his hamstring and was shelved for a week. While it healed, he went stir-crazy.

He can't remember missing two consecutive games in his entire playing career, not in high school, not in college, not in his only other year as a pro.

Unsure of what to do with the extra time, he created his own dugout games.

"Anything involving sunflower seeds," Wieters said, laughing. "Shooting hoops with them into a cup, spitting them for distance, whatever. ... There's a lot of trying to kill downtime when you are used to being on the field. It's not something I hope to experience often."

Wieters' bat seemed big-league ready after he bashed Single-A and Double-A pitching last year for a combined 27 homers, 91 RBIs and a .355 average, earning Baseball America's Player of the Year honors.

"Right when he came up [to Bowie] and I saw him play for a while, I was like 'Wow,' " said Orioles left fielder Nolan Reimold, who played with Wieters for parts of two seasons. "He can really hit and he can really play."

Still, Wieters was sent to Norfolk in March, partially so he'd have six-plus seasons with the Orioles before being eligible for free agency and partially because the organization felt he needed more seasoning, especially defensively.

"He doesn't have to work on a lot," Norfolk manager and former major league catcher Gary Allenson said. "If anything, he needs to get better on specific skills. He does a real good job calling a game but there are still little tweaks there, little things that come with experience."

Wieters threw out 40 percent of would-be base stealers in 2008, but his rate has dropped to 23 percent this season as he faces more experienced and selective base runners. Allenson noticed that the young catcher occasionally comes out of his crouch too quickly on stolen-base attempts, which can affect the transfer of the ball from glove to hand as well as alter his footing before the throw. So it's something they have worked on.

What has impressed Allenson the most is the way Wieters has handled the hype surrounding him. On a trip to Charlotte, Allenson said the team bus arrived at about midnight and there were "10 to 12 people waiting there for his autograph."

Allenson said Wieters is dealing with the attention -- from fans and the media -- effortlessly.

"There's definitely been extra media, but it's not a distraction," Wieters said. "It takes an extra five, 10 minutes and you try to be honest, tell them how you feel and then go out and play." He said he didn't let the promotion talk change his focus.

"I've been able to block it out pretty well," Wieters said. "We have a great bunch of guys in Norfolk that are keeping me loose and ready to play. And we've been playing pretty well as a team ... and that's something that will keep your mind off promotions."

The Orioles know that Wieters will automatically be the club's most-popular attraction, creating more media attention and hype.

But Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said his main concern is putting Wieters in a position to succeed -- not controlling media pressure.

"You'd like to downplay it, but the events are such that you don't control what's going to happen," MacPhail said. "There are a lot of worse things to deal with in sports.

"(Wieters) really has handled everything extraordinarily well for someone with limited experience, and I have no reason to think that won't continue."

Tides Notes: The Tides (30-14) have won 17 of their last 21 games and lead the International League South. ... RHP Chris Tillman left Saturday's start after two innings with a tight groin. He is tentatively scheduled to make his next start. Tillman, the organization's top pitching prospect, is 5-0 with a 2.13 ERA. The Tides are 8-0 when he starts. ... RHP David Hernandez has struck out 60 and walked 13 in 43 1/3 innings pitched. ... RHP Jason Berken is 2-0 with a 1.05 ERA in five Tides' starts, and made his major league debut Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays. ... LHP Chris Waters is 5-2 with a 4.53 ERA overall, but 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his last three starts. ... INF Oscar Salazar, the International League hits leader, is batting .380 while pacing the club with 35 RBIs ... CF Justin Christian extended his hitting streak to 10 games Monday. ... Closer Jim Miller leads the IL with 11 saves. ... The Tides are 12-2 since OF Joey Gathright joined the club. He has scored 13 runs in those 14 games.

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