Hernandez trade paves way for Wieters
Baltimore acquires Freel, two prospects in exchange for veteran
LAS VEGAS -- Let the Matt Wieters era begin. The Orioles cleared a path behind the plate for their top prospect Tuesday, when they traded Ramon Hernandez and cash considerations to the Reds for utilityman Ryan Freel and two prospects. Wieters probably won't start initially, but the deal was done with him in mind.
Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, made that connection in plain language, and he said that the Orioles will be better off without any obstacles standing in the prospect's path.
"It had been our goal to make sure we could introduce Matt into the Major League scene somewhere over the course of the '09 season. Not necessarily to start right away, but we thought he could handle it eventually after a little time in Triple-A possibly under his belt," said MacPhail. "We knew that would create a situation where we were going to have to split some playing time with him and Ramon, and we knew Ramon wouldn't be happy about that.
"Given where our franchise is, we also understood that our future was probably with Matt, and as my grandfather used to say, 'Better that you make a trade a year or two early than a year or two late.' So we gave up a very accomplished offensive Major League catcher, and in exchange, we got back three players that we're delighted to have."
The Orioles netted mid-level prospects Justin Turner and Brandon Waring in addition to Freel, whom the Orioles think will fit in as a multi-positional reserve. Freel has extensive experience playing at all three outfield spots and has also logged playing time on the infield, leading manager Dave Trembley to say he's "two players in one."
"He can play all three spots in the outfield and we can move him around in the infield, and I think that's really important for us," Trembley said of the new acquisition's utility. "Occasionally, guys need breaks, and Freel gives us that versatility, being able to move around. And I also like the fact that the guy is a very high-energy player, and I think he will really be well received in Baltimore and what we're trying to do there."
With that last comment, Trembley was referring to Freel's enthusiasm and desire to play hard, a tenacity that has fueled his ascent from a lightly regarded utilityman to a regular starter in Cincinnati. However, it has also resulted in him playing too hard and hurting himself, a trend that has developed in recent seasons.
Freel acknowledges that proclivity, but he doesn't make any apologies for it. Instead, he embraces it.
"I've always been the smallest kid on the block, and I kind of scratched and clawed to get to where I'm at," Freel said as part of a conference call with the media. "I loved watching Pete Rose play. It's just a passion that I have within me that gives me that spark and gives me that energy. It's like a switch. I just can't turn it off. That's just the way I play. Probably a lot of it constitutes with having injuries and this and that. But that's just the way I play."
"If any of you have suffered through my talks in Baltimore," added MacPhail, "you've heard a lot about effort, energy and enthusiasm. Those are the three things as a franchise we want to instill in our players. It is hard to think of a poster child that more represents those things for a Major League player than Ryan Freel, so we were excited to have him introduce a right-handed bat that can play some center field ... and give Luke Scott a platoon in left."
Hernandez, who will make $8 million in 2009, also has an option year worth $8.5 million for '10 on his contract that can be bought out with a $1 million payment. Baltimore is expected to send approximately $2 million in funds to Cincinnati, a facet of the deal that caused it to require approval from the Commissioner's Office.
The cash, in fact, is what made the deal take so much time. MacPhail began the negotiations for this trade weeks ago, and he said the Hernandez-for-Freel part was done rather painlessly. The rest took time.
Freel, meanwhile, was excited to join his new team and upset to leave his old one. The former 10th-round Draft pick said he's prepared to accept whatever role the Orioles give him and is ready to begin a new chapter.
"One thing in life, you can't look in the past. You have to look in the future," Freel said. "I was just thinking that I get to play in Yankee Stadium again and in Boston again. I enjoy that atmosphere. Camden Yards is right there with these guys. I'm excited. I guess the more talking to you guys, I'm getting more excited."
As for Wieters, MacPhail said the phenom will get a long look in Spring Training but will likely spend the first few weeks of the season at Triple-A Norfolk. That planned timetable will give Wieters time to acclimate himself to upper-level pitching, but it will also necessitate the Orioles signing a veteran catcher this winter.
MacPhail said that Baltimore would seek out a catcher with solid game-calling skills to mentor his pitching staff, and he said he's also seeking a veteran who could mesh in as a backup whenever Wieters gets the call. The path is clear for the O's best prospect, but that doesn't mean MacPhail wants to rush him before he's ready.
"You're asking an awful lot of a kid with 200 at-bats in Double-A to start in the big leagues," said MacPhail. "If you're going to err, let's err on the side of being conservative. If he's ready, he's going to show it in a short period of time. That's an easy thing to fix. If you do it the other way, that's not such an easy thing to fix."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.