Orioles' Wieters hopes to have breakout season

Catcher looks keep improving, make good on lofty expectations

February 17, 2011|Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — Matt Wieters walked into the spring training clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale three years ago and made like Nuke LaLoosh.

You remember Nuke, the Tim Robbins character in "Bull Durham" who was schooled by journeyman catcher Crash Davis to speak only in baseball cliches. Wieters must have seen the movie and figured out that the best way to keep his head down after signing a big bonus-baby contract was to make sure he said nothing that would make him the center of attention.

It was a little frustrating for all the media types who showed up to cover the guy who would soon be Baseball America's top prospect of 2009, but it was obvious that Wieters was more interested in fitting in with the older players and learning his craft than strutting into the spotlight.

Fast forward to 2011 and you'll still find Wieters side-stepping a lot of the sports celebrity foolishness that has become so fashionable these days, but it's pretty clear that he has grown into his skin at the major league level.

"I think you're going to see him continue to grow as a little bit more of a vocal guy,'' manager Buck Showalter said Thursday.

No doubt, the new manager is waiting like everybody else for Wieters to bust out at the plate and make good on all the offensive potential that made him such a hot commodity out of college, but he's looking at a bigger picture than the rest of us.

"You've heard me say before, he makes 100 or 200 decisions a night behind the plate and gets four at-bats,'' Showalter said. "You do the math. He can impact our club every night. When we get the offensive and defensive player he's going to be, we've got a pretty good package there."

Wieters, of course, is in only his second full season in the major leagues, so he's still on the upside of the learning curve, but being a catcher means having to assume the mantle of leadership on the field regardless of your major league service time.

"I still consider myself a young player in that I feel like I have a lot of ways that I need to improve to be the player I can be," he said, "but also having two years of experience is big as far as learning hitters and the pitching staff and being part of the clubhouse.

"I've been lucky to have some great veterans and good leaders who have made the clubhouse feel comfortable, but it's a little different in the respect that now maybe I try to make some of the even younger guys feel more comfortable."

There's no question that Wieters came to camp with a purpose. He's a leaner, meaner version of the young college star who had every major league scouting department drooling over him before the Orioles made him the fifth overall pick in the 2007 first-year player draft.

"You can see it in his face,'' Showalter said. "Matt takes everybody personally with the pitching staff. Matt is not only a good player. He's going to be part of the leadership of this club."

There is definitely a buzz around the Ed Smith Stadium training complex about his breakout potential this year, something the younger Wieters might have steered around. Now, he's ready to accept those expectations and — he hopes — make good on them.

"I feel every year that we've got guys in here who have the potential to do some special things,'' he said. "Last year wasn't a great year for a lot of people, but at the same time, you've just got to take those experiences and the things you did do right and go into the offseason. Hopefully, this year, the offense will improve for me and I'll be able to take that step forward in the game."

Meanwhile, the guys who take the mound in front of him agree that he has already come a long way and continues to grow.

"I think he's just getting better at catching and calling the game,'' Jeremy Guthrie said. "He just looks comfortable back there. I don't know if it's evolution or education. It's just very comfortable throwing to him, and we all enjoy working with him."

Brad Bergesen has worked with him at both the minor league and major league levels and marvels at the way Wieters — who built his amateur reputation largely with his bat — has committed himself to being the best possible defensive catcher.

"I've been with Matt since '08,'' Bergesen said. "Every year, he has gotten better at a different part of his game. The thing I'm most impressed with is the way he gets prepared to work with the staff. He's the first guy to the field every day, and he's constantly preparing himself for the hitters we are facing."

Job One is going to be handling the young starting rotation and the retooled bullpen, so look for Showalter to keep Wieters near the bottom of the Orioles' upgraded batting order, but the catcher wants badly to be part of the offensive renaissance that just might be brewing in Baltimore.

"You can just look at our lineup one through nine,'' he said. "I wouldn't want to call a game against our lineup as catcher. Hopefully, we can put up some runs and our young pitchers can take another step forward and that will add up to more wins."


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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