For top O's prospect Wieters, high praise, higher expectations

March 15, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Brian Roberts walked briskly from the dugout toward the batting cage one morning last week and waited for Matt Wieters to finish spraying balls around Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

When Wieters' batting practice round was done, Roberts, an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star, presented him with a cup of water as Orioles manager Dave Trembley, hitting coach Terry Crowley and first baseman Aubrey Huff broke into laughter.

Roberts' gesture was in mock deference to the newest Oriole, who is being touted as everything from a future Hall of Famer to the franchise savior before he has played a big league game.

"He's been great," Roberts said of the switch-hitting catcher. "Everybody loves him."

Wieters laughed and thanked Roberts, a typical understated reaction for the 22-year-old, who is perfectly content to fit in rather than stand out. That has been hard here, where Wieters, the fifth overall pick in 2007, has been under more scrutiny than any Oriole except Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara.

"He doesn't like attention," said Pam Wieters, Matt's mother. "I don't even talk to him about what I've read or what I've heard. As soon as I start to say something, he immediately changes the subject. He doesn't want to be the center of attention."

But there is no hiding from it. Not after Wieters put together in 2008 what Baseball Prospectus called the best minor league season in 40 years. He batted .355 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs in 130 games split between Single-A and Double-A. He was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year and anointed the sport's top prospect.

"You can take the best player to ever play the game, and you couldn't have expected him to come out of the chute this well," Orioles minor league director David Stockstill said. "No matter how much we expected out of Matt Wieters, he surpassed everything."

Wieters quickly dismissed the accolades when asked about them.

"It was great to have a good year last year, but that's over," he said. "I set my goals and expectations pretty high, and last year was one of the first years I've come close to reaching them. I have to bump up the goals a little bit higher this year."

Why wait?

Despite trading starting catcher Ramon Hernandez in December and watching Wieters bat .440 so far this spring, Orioles president Andy MacPhail said Wieters will likely start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

"This is a player that has had only one full year of experience and a little bit over 200 at-bats in Double-A," said MacPhail, who signed Gregg Zaun to bridge the gap to Wieters.

The decision has been - and will continue to be - hotly debated among Orioles fans and members of the national media, some of whom have written about Wieters this spring.

"I talked to a scout who saw him in [the Arizona Fall League], and he said to me that every day he spends in the minors is a total waste of time," said Kevin Goldstein, a writer for Baseball Prospectus. "If you know what his weaknesses are, I'd love to hear them. Offensively, the approach is there. He hits lefties and righties, shows plus power from both sides. He's an above-average defender with a plus arm.

"I think he's ready, and if you drop him in the lineup right now he'd be one of the best catchers in the league. He's a once-in-a-generation-type prospect, and he should get better over the next five years, which is terrifying."

The Orioles' decision, like the Tampa Bay Rays' last year involving top prospect Evan Longoria, might depend more on dollars than sense. If they wait to call up Wieters 13 days into the 2009 season, they'll have contractual control of him through the 2015 campaign, compared with one year earlier if he is their 2009 Opening Day catcher.

If they delayed his promotion until early June, they would also put off his arbitration until after 2012. This might loom large because Wieters is represented by Scott Boras, who doesn't often negotiate long-term deals for arbitration-eligible clients.

Asked whether he is concerned that starting Wieters in the minors will be viewed as strictly a financial decision, MacPhail said: "I don't particularly care about the perception. We have an obligation to do what is in the best interest for him and this franchise."

Before leaving for Fort Lauderdale for his second spring training, Wieters spoke to his father, Richard, who told his son, "Make them have a real hard decision."

Said Matt Wieters: "You always think you're ready. You have to have the confidence in yourself, but at the same time, I don't think it will be a letdown. Dave [Trembley] is great about being honest and letting you know what the organization is thinking, and I respect that. I'm going to be playing somewhere this year, and there's always something to learn."

'The real deal'

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