02/27/12 12:02 AM EST
O's look to Wieters to build strong battery
By Brittany Ghiroli / MLB.com
Wieters is the first name new pitcher Jason Hammel mentioned in his press conference this winter, about how he can't wait to get the chance to work with him, and he is consistently one of the last players to walk off the practice fields. Wieters -- who unsurprisingly fights to catch new arms like Hammel and Tsuyoshi Wada on the first day -- lingered to watch top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy's first open bullpen session, gesturing with his glove to the other catchers as he watches Brian Ward handle Bundy's heavy fastball. He is their commander -- increasingly voicing his thoughts to the other catchers -- as well as the bona-fide "captain" of the pitching staff, as Matusz calls it.
This spring, Wieters doesn't hesitate to playfully tease a crowd of reporters or give an unsolicited opinion to a teammate. In his fourth Major League camp and entering his third season as the Orioles starting catcher, Wieters finally seems comfortable with the fact that this is his pitching staff, his team, and he embraces the role that Baltimore envisioned when it drafted him as a first-rounder in 2007. The transformation, from a reserved, hyped to-the-moon prospect into a leader not afraid to get in his starting pitcher's face, has not gone unnoticed.
"It's been a drastic change over the last couple years," said Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, who started working with Wieters in 2008. "From then until now, he kind of went from baby Wiet to daddy Wiet in taking control of the reins."
"Each year he has stepped up and progressed into that role as, obviously, one of our team leaders," added pitcher Jake Arrieta. "When we run through our team fundamentals he's instrumental in vocally leading that aspect of camp and [manager Buck Showalter] really puts that on him to kind of show guys the way things are done and he's very, very good at it. I think he enjoys being in that position."
Gone are the days when Wieters would wearily eye a line of reporters who circulated his locker, eyes darting nervously for an escape route while he answered questions about being Baltimore's savior long before he even made his Major League debut. The unprecedented hype -- the Orioles announced his call-up days in advance -- kept Wieters in his shell, not wanting to step on veteran toes or stick out any more than the "top prospect" target on his back already afforded.
That he wasn't an immediate success -- one national publication went as far as to call him a "bust" -- hasn't given Wieters vindication. He is motivated solely by helping turn things around in Baltimore, exhibiting a rare sincerity that prompts bench coach John Russell to dub Wieters the "most unselfish player" he's ever been around.
"I try to look at it as, if you pay attention to the bad things people write about you, then you have to pay attention to the good things people write about you," Wieters said. "And when people write good things about you it's very nice, and when people write bad things about you it's their opinion, it's their right. Whatever I feel about myself is what I go with and I try not to put any [stock in] or draw any conclusions from people's opinions. Because no one knows yourself better than you."
Always a student of the game, Wieters rattles off scouting reports around the clubhouse with no problem, obliging any reporter's request for a debriefing despite the fact that the Orioles have 29 pitchers in this year's camp. A simple stroll by a coaches' meeting a few days ago prompted Showalter to call Wieters inside for his thoughts on a pick-off play. Two minutes later, the 25-year-old catcher came back from the bathroom and made a beeline for the meeting, dissecting the play and explaining why it wouldn't work.
"It was the exact same thing we were thinking," Showalter marveled.
The Orioles manager, who has said Wieters did one thing every single game last season that impressed him, is far from alone in doling out praise that extends far beyond the boxscore.
"He goes out there every day and players respect that; I think that's what really has helped him be the kind of guy who can be more vocal," said Russell, who is in his second spring with Baltimore. "And this spring he is, in talking to the catchers, talking to the pitchers. Not that he's never done that, but I think he realizes the challenges of being the everyday catcher, that he has got responsibilities. And he knows what he has to do."
"It doesn't surprise me," Matusz said of Wieters' work habits. "He's one of the best catchers in the game for a reason: he really cares about his teammates and his pitching staff. He's willing to put the time in and the work in to get to know us. He helps make every guy on this pitching staff better just by putting that time in."
In the spring of 2010, the Orioles cut ties with veteran backup catcher Chad Moeller, opting to give the spot to Craig Tatum, with the declaration being that it was finally time for Wieters to take control. This winter, the organization dealt veteran Jeremy Guthrie -- the team's only 200-inning arm the last three seasons -- effectively handing Wieters a starting rotation which ranked last in the Majors in several statistical categories in '11, with a startling lack of experience. Asked how that departure might make his role more difficult, Wieters doesn't dodge the topic or fall into using a tired cliché. Instead, he puts accountability on the arms who are still in Oriole uniforms.
"I don't think my role changes, but it might help these younger guys take the next step forward, and start feeling like, 'We are what the team needs to be able to be successful,'" he said. "When Guthrie was going out there and giving us innings, guys could kind of just sit back and watch him, which is good for them, but now somebody's got to take up that No. 1 job."
Wieters admits he has slowly grown accustomed to publicly doling out his opinion, a facet of his game that has grown with experience. He wants to be that guy, although there isn't an air of cockiness or self-importance about it.
"Anything you can do to help guys get ready for the year and get ready to contribute is something I've gotten a little more comfortable in voicing my opinion about," Wieters said. "Because I have a lot of faith and a lot of expectations for a lot of the guys that are on this team, and we all want to try to get to be as good as we can be."
And therein lies Wieters' true value to the team: as nice as last year's individual accolades were, there is no doubt he would trade them for a chance at postseason play, or perhaps even a .500 season. The Orioles finished 69-93 last year, and the organization is mired in a stretch of 14 consecutive losing seasons. Wieters is not the "savior" he was unfairly typecast as, but rather the Orioles' rock.
"He didn't let it get him down," Russell said of Wieters' approach last season. "He kept looking for ways to not only get himself better, but the pitching staff better. That was his driving force all year. I never heard him complain. He wasn't happy about what was going on, but you never heard him complain about it. It was just, 'What can I do tonight to try to get us through this game, to try to get the pitchers on track?'"
He will take that same approach this year, with Showalter and several of Wieters' teammates suggesting there is even more fire than he has shown, more room still for him to step up and grow.
"The beauty of Matt is he doesn't force anything," Showalter said. "It's sincere. His words carry weight and he knows it, so he uses them cautiously. So far, his timing has been impeccable."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.