Wieters no longer just trying to catch on

Catcher is ready to take charge behind the plate for O's

February 15, 2010|By Dan Connolly | Baltimore Sun reporter

When he arrived for Orioles' spring training in each of the past two years, catcher Matt Wieters was a camp curiosity.

In 2008, he was the big-money draft pick who hadn't yet played a game for the organization and was there for a brief taste of the big leagues.

Last year, he was the can't-miss phenom, baseball's top prospect who was trying to soak everything in before an inevitable call-up later in the year.

Now, as pitchers and catchers report Wednesday, Wieters has a different role.

The organization's "Golden Boy" has graduated to "The Man" behind the plate.

"This year I'm not trying to go in and trying to fit in, or trying not to do anything stupid," said Wieters, who enters his first full big-league season as the club's starting catcher. "This year, I'm going in and trying to get better and get ready for a long season."

The Orioles have taken the training shin guards off of Wieters after he batted .288 and improved defensively in his first 96 big-league games in 2009. Previously, the club had tempered its expectations and responsibilities for Wieters, who doesn't turn 24 until May.

But no more.

"Wieters is pretty well-established, based on how he did. Now he needs to come in and take over the staff," said pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "I am sure he will, absolutely. I want him to come in and take these guys and say, 'Let's go. Follow me and let's go.'"

What's Wieters' response to such a formidable challenge from his pitching coach?

"I think that's great," he said. "All of us (rookies) last year came in testing the waters, seeing what it would be like, seeing what to do at this level. Now, it is go time, to get ready to compete from Day One."

Each of the last two springs, Wieters played the part of engrossed pupil to a veteran; Ramon Hernandez in 2008 and Gregg Zaun last February.

Of the seven catchers in camp this year, Wieters is the third youngest. He's less than a month older than Caleb Joseph, who was the starting catcher at Single-A Frederick last season, and about 18 months older than Luis Bernardo, who played at Low-A Delmarva.

Undoubtedly, Wieters' backup this season will be older and more experienced, whether it is Chad Moeller, 34, Michel Hernandez, 31, or Craig Tatum, 26. Yet there is no question as to which catcher will be expected to take charge by Opening Day.

"I love that responsibility. All catchers want to have that responsibility," Wieters said. "They were able to take that off me as much as possible last year. But all catchers that want to be around for a long time need to relish in the responsibility to take over the pitching staff, as well as being a leader for the team in defense."

Manager Dave Trembley preached patience to the fans and media last year with Wieters, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. Trembley knows those lofty expectations won't diminish in 2010, especially after Wieters hit .362 in September with three homers and 14 RBIs.

But he isn't concerned that outside pressures will hamper his young catcher.

"The guy is so well-grounded." Trembley said. "I think he is still got room to improve and he is not -- by no means -- the best player he can be as of yet. I would think Matt would agree with that. But we are pleased with the progress he has made and we are thrilled to have him."

If there was a knock on Wieters, it was that he needed to get stronger this offseason to deal with a grueling, 162-game schedule, something he had never experienced before.

After taking a few weeks off in October, Wieters began his offseason conditioning and lifting program. He started last February at 230 pounds, but was down to 220 by the end of the season.

He said he's up to about 232 now, and is more confident he'll be able to maintain the weight in 2010. Part of the plan, he said, was improving his nutrition.

"I wanted to cut out some of the bad foods, the fast foods, as much as possible and work on eating healthy," he said. "This spring, I feel like I am coming in in pretty good shape, better shape than I have come in in the past two years. I want to keep my body going and strong. When Opening Day comes, I want to be ready to go."

His biggest challenge may be using what he learned last year and turning it into constructive criticism for the Orioles' young rotation, which includes three starters age 24 or younger.

"I definitely want to sit down with the pitching staff more and have more conversations," he said. "I'm still learning, and I'll be learning throughout my career. We all are, especially the young guys. They have gone through it now for a year and now we can throw things back and forth and really try to get better."

In one year, Wieters will have to go from rookie who knows his place to a field general who knows when and how to be assertive.

"He has been respectful to the players that came before him and guys with (service) time," Kranitz said. "There is nothing wrong with that. But now he's got a little bit of time, he's seen what it is all about. It's now time for him. He's the guy."

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