Wieters ready to step into starring role
In first full year, catcher will be relied upon heavily by O's
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Matt Wieters' locker is nestled in the front left corner of the Orioles' clubhouse, and most mornings, the 23-year-old is accompanied by a member of the media, a revolving carousel of faces all wanting to know the same things.
Now that he's not a rookie, what will Wieters do? Can the 6-foot-5 switch-hitting catcher build on last season's strong second half? Or, perhaps most importantly, can he take control of the O's young arms?
The questions come so often already, Wieters has jokingly mentioned posting some generic responses above his locker. But this spring's curiosity pales with its predecessor. Last year, Wieters was a can't-miss prospect whose pending Major League arrival caused frenzy like nothing president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail had ever seen. Baltimore even announced its decision to call up Wieters three days early, an unprecedented move for the franchise.
"The expectations were through the moon," said MacPhail, who has worked in baseball front offices for more than 20 years. "As much as we like to temper expectations, that was really a one-way freight train that got out of control."
This spring, the anticipation has dissipated and with it, so has most of the circus.
Now, it's time for Act II. And Wieters, who will enter his first full Major League season, has no problem assuming a starring role.
"You don't have to be [overly] vocal to be able to go up to a guy and just talk to him about how his bullpen went," Wieters said. "The good thing about last year is a lot of the guys [in the rotation], I caught in the Minor Leagues. And now, we can sort of take a step further and really get into some pitching conversations."
Polite and quiet almost to a fault, Wieters said he is "definitely" willing to assume more of a leadership role behind the plate. What the former Georgia Tech standout won't do is try to change who he is.
"I don't know if he's approaching [this spring] any differently," manager Dave Trembley said. "Because of the way Matt is, I don't think he will change the way he approaches anything. It would just appear that he's just a lot more relaxed and confident. He knows he's the catcher."
So does everyone inside the Orioles' locker room.
|"It's definitely a lot of unexpected stuff that you have to learn, and your eyes are definitely wide open just trying to see what all's going on out there. This year, I can come in knowing a little bit more what to expect. You still have a ton to learn, but you sort of have an idea what's going on."|
|-- Matt Wieters|
"It's a totally relaxed situation for him going forward," backup catcher Chad Moeller said. "It's not 'When is this going to happen? How is this going to work?' It's, 'You will be behind the plate Opening Day, and you will be behind the plate most of the time. And we will expect it and we will depend on you.'"
Wieters, the fifth overall selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, is used to widespread acclaim. The switch-hitter was regarded as the best position player in his Draft year, and after signability concerns dropped him a few picks, the Orioles picked him and eventually rewarded him with a contract worth $6 million. After splitting the '08 season between high Class A and Double-A, the Wieters Watch began and didn't subside until he made his Major League debut May 29, 2009.
"No matter how good you are, until you've played in the big leagues and been able to do something, you don't know if you can really," said Moeller, Wieters' lockermate who has spent parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues. "There's that little bit [of doubt] in your head that says 'What if it doesn't? What if it is a bigger difference than I thought?' And he's gotten through that with flying colors."
Wieters batted .259 with a .316 on-base percentage and a .407 slugging mark before the All-Star break, and improved to a .301 average, a .351 OBP and a .415 slugging percentage after the intermission.
Some of his struggles were due to an inevitable learning curve, just as his late-season success can likely be attributed to Wieters getting more comfortable. He batted .362 with three home runs and 14 RBIs in September, and the Orioles began batting him in the No. 3 slot during the final few weeks of the season.
"It's definitely a lot of unexpected stuff that you have to learn, and your eyes are definitely wide open just trying to see what all's going on out there," Wieters said. "This year, I can come in knowing a little bit more what to expect. You still have a ton to learn, but you sort of have an idea what's going on."
Armed with in-game experience, Wieters will enter the season determined to make it through the 162-game grind. He spent this winter focused on adding back the 10 pounds of muscle lost throughout the course of last season, and Wieters is now an imposing 232. His wife, Maria, helped him steer clear of junk food and Wieters' diet now includes plenty of fish and rice. He knows he will get fatigued at some point this season, but the hope is maintaining his muscle mass and overhauling his nutrition will delay that.
Wieters will be the batterymate for a projected rotation of Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, the latter three all under 25 with similar experience levels as Wieters.
"He's come up with a nice group," MacPhail. "And the fact that they sort of came together, I think had the positive impact of distributing the burden a little bit amongst them."
With MacPhail making it clear that the organization is out of the rebuilding phase, the Orioles will rely heavily on the expected improvement of their young players. And perhaps no one will be counted on more than Wieters.
"I hope [he continues to get better]," said Moeller, who has assumed a mentoring role to the young phenom. "They're expecting him to. He's expecting him to. And if he doesn't, he's got me totally fooled.
"He knows what's he doing, and he knows what he's capable of."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.