Matt Wieters Catching On Quick With O's
"Wieters is as cool a cookie as you'll see," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "The first day he looked like he'd been here for 15 years."
Imagine what could happen as Wieters gains some experience to go with that confidence. The Orioles, reluctant to heap any higher expectations on a guy who has lived with unbelievable hype, are cautiously optimistic about what Wieters could do as he enters his first full season.
"Our expectations are hopefully he'll be able to do the lion's share of the catching and continue to progress as it relates to handling the game behind the plate, and be a contributing offensive player," general manager Andy MacPhail said. "I don't think it's reasonable to expect him to be a middle-of-the-order impact hitter his first full season in the big leagues."
It may not be reasonable to expect it, but the Orioles can still hope. Baltimore is a team that finally seems to be on the right track, with a solid core of young everyday players like Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and promising pitchers like Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. Wieters is potentially the brightest star of them all.
Wieters has been well-known among baseball fans since the Orioles invested a record $6 million in him after he signed as the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. A smooth-fielding, power-hitting, athletic switch-hitter, Wieters did nothing to disappoint as he torched his way through the minor leagues in less than a season and a half, culminating with his well-chronicled ascent to the big leagues last May.
"The hype was world class," said MacPhail. "He handled it about as well as you could hope a kid would handle it."
Wieters was hitting .239 through his first 33 games in the majors. After that, he hit .312. Trembley finally put him into the No. 3 spot in the batting order over the final two weeks of the season, and Wieters responded by hitting .340 in that spot.
"It didn't surprise me at all," Trembley said. "I did tell people when he first came in he wasn't going to be Bill Dickey or Johnny Bench. Give him some room to grow and learn. He's not going to be perfect. The big thing about Wieters is he's able to evaluate himself. The good ones do."
Wieters said the biggest adjustment he had to make was to not try so hard to live up to his billing.
"When you first get up here, you try to hit the ball 500 feet every time, which isn't going to happen," Wieters said. "It's just a matter of settling in. Go out and relax and play like you've always played."
Of course, hitting is just one of the catcher's jobs, and it's arguably the least important. Wieters also had to learn to handle an entire pitching staff, one that was largely composed of pitchers as inexperienced as him.
"It was the blind leading the blind," Trembley said, "and he did an outstanding job."
Wieters soaked up all he could from veteran catchers Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz said Wieters spent hours going over video and scouting reports. One of Wieters' strengths is his memory. Kranitz said he has an outstanding recall for what he's seen on the field. He's also got an ability to create a scouting report on the fly, just by looking at the way a hitter approaches an at-bat.
"He's a very bright guy," Kranitz said. "He understands what's going on. There is a confidence in his approach and what he's doing. It's a very difficult thing for any catcher to do, especially at his age, with limited experience in the minor leagues, to come up and have to run a pitching staff and hit from both sides of the plate."
Now Wieters has more than four months worth of experience as a big-league catcher. He doesn't figure to have as much homework to learn his job. He also should be able to go about his business without the hoopla that surrounded his much-anticipated rookie year.
"This season I'm sure has been a breath of fresh air for him," MacPhail said. "Other than the Sports Illustrated cover, he's been just another guy."
No chance MacPhail is going to ruin that by trotting out predictions for 2010. For the record, in 169 minor-league games, Wieters hit .343 with a 1.014 OPS. He hit 32 homers and drove in 121 runs. You can make your own projections.
"The kid has had to deal with hype, so we don't want to do anything to heighten those expectations, which have already been considerable," MacPhail said.
Asked what he expects of himself this year, Wieters said: "Just competing every at-bat. That's what you see from the great hitters like Albert Pujols. They never give an at-bat away. That's what I'm constantly working toward."