With stroke of pen, Orioles make mark

August 16, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

By the time the Orioles got top draft choice Matt Wieters to sign on the dotted line last night, it was no longer only about the can't-miss college catcher with the sweet swing from both sides of the plate.

It was about the Orioles keeping faith with their fans.

It was about the front office proving that the past isn't always prologue.

It was about maybe - just maybe - the franchise turning a corner after nine years headed in the wrong direction.

And maybe it was about redemption, because Wieters was on the verge of becoming the newest symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the Orioles organization over the past decade.

He came within minutes of going back for his senior year at Georgia Tech and leaving the Orioles front office to explain to an increasingly cynical fan base why it wasn't willing to pony up enough money for a potential franchise player at a time when position depth is a major issue at every level of the organization.

Wieters, by all accounts, is the kind of prospect who will be knocking on the clubhouse door at Oriole Park by 2009. He's an advanced college player who adds some much-needed balance to a minor league feeder system that has been heavily weighted toward pitching over the past few years.

Everyone in the Orioles organization believes he has a chance to be something special, but the most important thing about the deal he agreed to last night was the commitment demonstrated by Orioles management to take an important step into the future.

Not that the Orioles just handed a blank check to agent Scott Boras. Quite the contrary. They gave Wieters the highest rookie signing bonus in club history - approximately $6 million - but it still wasn't close to his asking price, which was so high that Orioles officials seemed resigned to another embarrassing front office failure.

Wouldn't have been the first time the Orioles whiffed on a first-round pick. It was only three years ago that owner Peter Angelos intervened on draft day and compelled the club to pick college pitcher Wade Townsend instead of choosing between two highly regarded high school shortstops. Townsend ended up going back to school.

The Wieters negotiations figured to be a test case for the revamped management hierarchy. New team president Andy MacPhail supposedly has been given free reign to reshape the organization, but little has happened during his first 2 1/2 months in charge to indicate that there has been any dynamic change in front office philosophy.

No enlightenment would be forthcoming this week. The outcome of the Wieters negotiations could cut either way because MacPhail did not participate in the decision to draft him. The fact that the Orioles picked him knowing he would be represented by Boras and knowing the price would be well outside of Major League Baseball's suggested draft choice slotting recommendation suggests that Angelos originally gave the go-ahead to overpay for him, which could mean that MacPhail actually stepped in to hold the line. But many skeptical fans are going to assume Angelos set the parameters and lucked out when Wieters caved at the last minute.

Doesn't matter now. The Orioles got him signed at a reasonable figure and everybody can bask in the glow of a job well done.

The next frontier will be the free-agent market, which is the only place the Orioles can get immediate help for their sketchy offensive attack without giving up any valuable pitching prospects. The successful effort to sign Wieters might be an early indication that MacPhail and Angelos are serious about upgrading the team, but that might not make any difference.

Wieters, after all, had nowhere else to go but back to school.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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