Wieters Appears to Be Quite the Catch
Orioles' Top Prospect Fits In Immediately at Major League Camp
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page D03
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 16 -- Surrounded in the clubhouse by established major leaguers, Matt Wieters did the best he could to blend in.
He stood in line waiting for his mandatory physical, though at 6 feet 5, he towered over his teammates. Without much fanfare, he took his turn at the batting cage, easily making contact from both sides of the plate as several team executives looked on. And afterward, he kept to himself while organizing the catching equipment in front of his locker.
Except for the hint of a grin early on that first day of spring training -- when he looked much too cheerful for somebody forced to arrive at 7:30 a.m. for an appointment to get poked with a doctor's needles -- the Orioles' most highly regarded prospect had successfully eased his way into his first spring training.
"He looks real comfortable," Orioles Manager Dave Trembley said. "He doesn't look like anything is too overwhelming for him."
Said Wieters, "It's still baseball."
This is what the organization's higher-ups expected when they invited Wieters to the major league camp. The Orioles have identified the 21-year-old switch-hitter as a prominent piece in their rebuilding plan, impressed by the maturity he showed during his collegiate days at Georgia Tech.
"I saw him handle pitchers and call the game very, very well as a catcher and as a receiver," said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill. "That is something that is mandatory in every major league catcher. They have to be able to handle pitchers."
Baseball America ranked Wieters the top prospect in the Orioles organization and the top position player to emerge from last season's first-year player draft. Another publication even ranked Wieters the best catching prospect in all of minor league baseball -- all before Wieters has faced a single pitch in the minor leagues.
Drafted fifth overall, Wieters held out until August, when he signed after fetching a club-record $6 million signing bonus, another indication of where he fits in the team's long-term plans.
"He's got a chance to be very good," Trembley said.
Because he signed so late, Wieters's professional experience entering camp consists only of a 10-day stint at short season Class A Aberdeen, where he worked out but was never activated to play. In search of experience, he did a 31-game stint in the Hawaiian Winter League, where he batted .283 and knocked in 17 runs against teams that comprised other prospects.
"It was competitive," said Wieters, who used the time to acclimate himself to using a wooden bat. "For a winter league in Hawaii, you think it might be laid back. But it was a competitive league out there."
Wieters last played a full season during his junior year at Georgia Tech, where he became the third Yellow Jacket to be named an all-American twice (Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra are the others).
"It's about getting back out there and playing again," said Wieters, who will likely start the season in Class A.
The son of a former professional ballplayer, Wieters already was hitting and throwing before kindergarten. Aside from a brief foray into football -- he played one season in high school as a tight end in an option offense -- he devoted himself exclusively to baseball, which is perhaps why Wieters has handled his spring training assignment with relative ease.
Stockstill sees the player's immersion into camp as yet another sign that the Orioles may have found something special, though he is careful to set modest goals for Wieters during his first year as a professional.
"You want to see him feel comfortable at the level he's at," Stockstill said. "You want to see him feel that he belongs, and then you want to see him make progress each day."