Taking Flight

O's Wieters earns 2008 Minor League Player of Year honor





See also: Tech's tradition of producing stars continues
See also: Vote on who you would have picked as the Minor League Player of the Year


BOWIE, Md.—The schoolkids meandered down the aisles of Prince George's Stadium and, Sharpies at the ready, huddled along the first and second rows just beyond the first-base dugout.

Matt Wieters, carrying his dusty black bag packed with catcher's gear and strolling back to the clubhouse tucked beyond the outfield billboards, probably could have sneaked by if he really wanted to.

Matt Wieters
This was the final Tuesday night of the regular season at Double-A Bowie, in a season when it seems everybody has sought "just a minute" of time from the Orioles' 2007 first-round pick. The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun are just the most notable of the media outlets that have dispatched scribes to drop in and probe Wieters about his childhood and baseball potential.

The swarms of autograph hounds are here every night, though. On this evening, an exhausted Wieters could have thrown them a polite nod and a "Sorry, I've got to get going" comment so he could hit the buffet line and head home.

Guess who was the last player in the clubhouse?

"The fans are the reasons we're able to play this game. When they show up every night and support you, you've got to give your best effort to give them autographs and just give them a little bit of your time," Wieters says. "You're not going to be able to sign every autograph or get to say hello to every person. But every chance you can get, it doesn't hurt to take some time out of your day to sign some autographs and make some kids happy."

No wonder, then, the Orioles are so optimistic about his (and their) future.

The opening salvo to Wieters' pro career lit up ballparks across the East Coast this summer, as he showed his talent on and off the field, at the plate and behind it, and made himself an easy choice as the Baseball America 2008 Minor League Player of the Year.

Not only did the switch-hitter ransack the high Class A Carolina and Double-A Eastern leagues, batting a combined .355/.454/.600 with 27 home runs, but Wieters also won over coaches with a surprising feel for calling a game—which he rarely handled during his three-year stampede through Georgia Tech.

Along the way—and perhaps as significant as any of his abilities—Wieters also embraced leadership and ambassador roles within the Orioles system. Handling pitching staffs and crushing fastballs were impressive, but his generosity with fans could not go unnoticed.

As Orioles roving catching instructor Don Werner put it, "He acts like he's been around 10 years in the big leagues."

Star Potential

Wieters' potential star power cannot be underscored enough.

Baltimore celebrated the 25th anniversary of its last World Series championship this summer, as the Orioles careened toward their 11th consecutive losing season. The playoff berths of 1996 and 1997 are a distant memory and, believe it or not, next season will mark the eighth since Cal Ripken Jr. began retirement.

That's not to say the future is entirely bleak. Former Twins and Cubs architect Andy MacPhail now runs the baseball operation, 24-year-old Nick Markakis and 22-year-old Adam Jones patrol the outfield at Camden Yards, and several young arms and intriguing hitting prospects reside in the minors.

But in Wieters, the Orioles appear to have a cornerstone, the kind whose presence could completely re-energize the team and its fan base. His bat is his most obvious attribute because Wieters easily bridged his production from college to the pros, with managers praising his ability to hit with power to all fields and took note of his patience at the plate. Menacing in his 6-foot-5, 230-pound, Paul Bunyan-esque frame, he walked more times (82) than he struck out (76).

Yet he also balanced his offensive production and strong defensive skills by proving to be a team leader.

It's no wonder MacPhail and Orioles manager Dave Trembley have fended off numerous questions about Wieters in the season's second half. Both spent the final week of August defusing speculation of a Wieters callup, explaining he wasn't likely to receive many at-bats. MacPhail also declined to offer specifics about Wieters' chances for a big league roster spot next season, when catcher Ramon Hernandez will be in the final year of a four-year, $27.5 million contract.

Sitting in the Orioles dugout while pondering the organization's future, MacPhail was asked what he liked of Wieters. He did not hesitate.

"Everything," MacPhail says. "He was very impressive in major league camp. It was just the right mix of confidence and yet being humble."

BA MINOR LEAGUE POYs
1981 Mike Marshall, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
1982 Ron Kittle, of, Edmonton (White Sox)
1983 Dwight Gooden, rhp, Lynchburg (Mets)
1984 Mike Bielecki, rhp, Hawaii (Pirates)
1985 Jose Canseco, of, Huntsville/ Tacoma (Athletics)
1986 Gregg Jefferies, ss, Columbia/Lynchburg/Jackson (Mets)
1987 Gregg Jefferies, ss, Jackson/Tidewater (Mets)
1988 Tom Gordon, rhp, Appleton/Memphis/Omaha (Royals)
1989 Sandy Alomar, c, Las Vegas (Padres)
1990 Frank Thomas, 1b, Birmingham (White Sox)
1991 Derek Bell, of, Syracuse (Blue Jays)
1992 Tim Salmon, of, Edmonton (Angels)
1993 Manny Ramirez, of, Canton/Charlotte (Indians)
1994 Derek Jeter, ss, Tampa/Albany/Columbus (Yankees)
1995 Andruw Jones, of, Macon (Braves)
1996 Andruw Jones, of, Durham/Greenville/Richmond (Braves)
1997 Paul Konerko, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
1998 Eric Chavez, 3b, Huntsville/Edmonton (Athletics)
1999 Rick Ankiel, lhp, Arkansas/Memphis (Cardinals)
2000 Jon Rauch, rhp, Winston-Salem/Birmingham (White Sox)
2001 Josh Beckett, rhp, Brevard County/Portland (Marlins)
2002 Rocco Baldelli, of, Bakersfield/Orlando/Durham (Devil Rays)
2003 Joe Mauer, c, Fort Myers/New Britain (Twins)
2004 Jeff Francis, lhp, Tulsa/Colorado Springs (Rockies)
2005 Delmon Young, of, Montgomery/Durham (Devil Rays)
2006 Alex Gordon, 3b, Wichita (Royals)
2007 Jay Bruce, of, Sarasota/Chattanooga/Louisville (Reds)
2008 Matt Wieters, c, Frederick/Bowie (Orioles
Trembley went further, saying he surpassed expectations.

"I think for our organization, he's a big league guy in our minor leagues," Trembley says. "And we're looking for big league players, but we're also looking for big league people. And he's at the top of the charts in all of those categories."

The current big leaguers are aware of Wieters' arrival, too. Markakis and Jones themselves have been seen as keys to the Orioles' future, and adding Wieters brings the team closer to a critical mass of quality young players.

"It's exciting to get guys like that," Markakis says, speaking of highly regarded Orioles prospects. "We've got some good young players coming into our organization, and it's exciting to see where we'll be next year and the year after that."

Heady Behind The Plate

Dropping in occasionally to evaluate Wieters this season, Werner, a former big leaguer, can't help but smile when detailing his game-calling.

As dangerous as Wieters may prove to be offensively, his defense and game-calling, a byproduct of handling a pitching staff, could have a greater effect on Baltimore's future. Orioles fans got a preview of future batteries, first with U.S. Olympian Jake Arrieta in Frederick this season, and then at Bowie with 20-year-old righthander Chris Tillman, a 2006 second-round pick obtained in the Erik Bedard trade with the Mariners.

Wieters said he last called games in high school and naturally the dust had gathered on those skills. Having experienced the other end of the equation at Tech, working 87 relief innings in three seasons, he said his experience as a pitcher helps as well.

"He's got a great feel for calling a game," says Werner, who spent seven years in the majors and caught Tom Seaver's 1978 no-hitter with the Reds. "A lot of times I worry about a catcher who's a good hitter. Sometimes they forget about calling the game and think about their hitting. But he takes pride in it. What really impressed me about him was when we moved him from A-ball to Double-A, the first game he's catching a guy (Chorye Spoone) he's never caught before. And he caught him like he had been catching him all of his life."

There was more to come. Wieters also shepherded Tillman through the latter half of the season as he handled each of the righthander's final six starts, a stretch in which Tillman went 4-1, 1.80 with 51 strikeouts and 11 walks in 35 innings.

"(Calling a game) is something I love doing. I love trying to figure out what the hitter wants to do and what the pitcher wants to do," Wieters says. "But after taking three years off, it's something you have to learn (again). The bigger thing I'm trying to work on is what the hitter is trying to do, what you can read from his swing and what his thoughts are at the plate.

"It might be the right pitch and it might be a good pitch. But if a hitter is trying to do just something to that pitch, maybe it was the wrong pitch at that time."

Wieters credits Frederick manager Tommy Thompson, a former catcher, for mentoring him in the season's first half.

"I really want to stay with a pitcher's strengths as much as possible. If the hitter is a good fastball hitter but the pitcher is a good fastball pitcher, you can't have him shy away and throw his second or third-best pitch in there all the time," Wieters said. "You've got to make that pitcher have that confidence and competing ability. As a pitcher, you're going to succeed seven, eight times out of 10 and be fine.

"You see even the best guys in the league, they're going to go through stretches where they get themselves out."

Wieters said he welcomes feedback from the pitcher, emphasizing that the battery is a democracy, not a dictatorship.

"It's not something where you can be stubborn behind the plate. The pitcher, he's thrown his stuff for 20, 25 years. And I've just caught him for a couple of months. They're still going to know they're stuff better than I do," he says. "But when you can get on the same page and learn their stuff as quickly as possible, it helps the game flow by a little better and helps build a better relationship."

Take one of Tillman's final starts, an eight-strikeout effort over six scoreless innings against Trenton. Tillman had trouble spotting his fastball, but Wieters kept calling for it. Quarantined until late in the third inning was Tillman's fall-off-the-table curveball—even though it was bending in their warmup.

Only once did Wieters visit the mound, and Tillman later said the two are in sync, that Wieters does not bark orders.

"I can tell you exactly what he's going to throw down and can tell you what he's going to say when he comes out," Tillman said.

Bowie pitching coach Mike Griffin sings Wieters' praises, too, noting his acumen in pregame meetings.

"We have an open forum and everybody can voice their opinion. And he does. When Matt speaks, our pitching staff listens," Griffin says. "He's done a heck of a job. He's able to read what hitters are trying to do to our pitching staff. His game-calling reflects that.

"And if we're working on a specific pitch, he makes sure we implement that enough times throughout their outing, whether they are a starter or reliever. Matt's been able to keep that developmental part for our pitching staff. The respect from our pitching staff is there for him. They know he's a special type of guy."

Marketing Potential

Given Wieters' ceiling, imagine the potential marketing opportunities: A photo of their top prospect peering out from behind a catcher's mask . . . the seemingly endless eight-lane highways zig-zagging in the Baltimore-D.C. metro area . . . and all of those billboards and TV spots in a behemoth media market.

Fortunately, MacPhail and the front office need not bother eavesdropping on the marketing wing at the B&O Warehouse, in case they fear an advertising whiz develops a crazy marketing blitz built around Wieters and other intriguing farmhands.

"We're certainly not going to over-hype players that are in Double-A or single-A," says Greg Bader, the team's director of communications.

Still, it's no surprise the Orioles would have an extra bounce in their step. Look around: Who will truly become the face of the franchise over the next decade? Markakis and Jones are certainly possibilities, but Wieters looks like a potential superstar. To Orioles fans skittish after the Miguel Tejada experiment and beaten down in the high-stakes AL East, this is what drives nightly conversation at Camden Yards amid the hundreds of empty seats.

"It's certainly an exciting time," Bader lets on.

Fortunately for the Orioles, Wieters appears to have the necessary mindset.

"It's always (important) to try to be one of the leaders on a team and in an organization," Wieters says. "I like being a leader. I like being a guy where some guys come up to me and ask what he should be doing here or what he should be doing there. Baseball is what I know and what I enjoy being around. You're always going to be learning, and hopefully you can be teaching as well."

Sitting in a folding chair outside the Bowie clubhouse one afternoon, hours before the fans come around looking for autographs, the annoying hum of the air conditioning unit nearby, Wieters appeared at ease.

Many highly regarded prospects have come before him and bombed, especially in the Orioles' system, which has harvested only four of its combined 22 first-round and supplemental picks from the 1995 to 2004 drafts.

Like other first-round picks, Wieters could easily hide behind guarded, one-sentence answers and disappointingly play the I'm-just-a-ballplayer skit. He's got the glitzy pedigree: He was a client of super-agent Scott Boras; secured a $6 million bonus from the Orioles just ahead of the August 2007 deadline; and was a star of stars at Georgia Tech, where he joined Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra as its only back-to-back, first-team All-Americans.

But of all that's been written about him, Wieters couldn't help but wonder if the rush of some media has overlooked the trait that sets him apart from many overblown prospects of the past: his love for the game.

That's why he believes he has handled this season so well, why he tore through high Class A Frederick and performed even better in Bowie, where he led the team to the Eastern League playoffs in hitting .365/.460/.625 with 12 home runs, 14 doubles and 51 RBIs. The bus trips and teammates shouting from the back of the bus to pull over to McDonald's? He got a kick out of that, just as he appreciated adoring fans. It was some summer.

A Workaholic

His reasoning is as refreshing as it is simple: He understands that he is fortunate. That's why there were times this season when Wieters thought back to his childhood days in suburban Charleston, S.C., where his mother is a teacher, his dad a former minor leaguer turned insurance salesman. Wieters remembered being a kid at games at The Citadel, a university in Charleston that features military-style discipline.

"(Baseball is) something to be a workaholic in, but that's not a bad thing," Wieters says. "They weren't going to get the most talented guys in there because the marching scares some guys away. But you could tell how much they loved the game and the passion that they played with, and the work ethic they had off the field.

"They had to wake up at 6 a.m. and march in line. But those guys wanted to play baseball so bad that they wanted to get through it. That's one of my biggest memories from my childhood, going down there every weekend."

Seemingly wanting everyone to love baseball as much as he does, Wieters tries to sign every autograph he can. And it's not something he performs only when the eyes of the media are upon him.

Werner remembers a postgame scene at Frederick. To reach the home clubhouse, players must hike the steps behind the backstop, turn at the concourse and knife through the streams of spectators. Yet Wieters, caught up amid the autograph hounds in what must have been a nightly occurrence, gladly signed away.

Werner chuckled. He remembers imploring Thompson to do something, anything, to rescue their star catcher.

"I told him to say you've got a team meeting and get him out of there,' " Werner says, grinning. "Yeah, the guy has incredible makeup."

The final test, then, is Wieters' ability to handle not only big league pitching but also big league attention once he arrives in Baltimore. Unlike most Double-A teams, Bowie doesn't have a radio broadcaster, nor does a daily newspaper beat writer patrol the clubhouse. However, Wieters seems to be at least a weekly favorite for an in-depth story from one of the bigger media outlets, and he tries to make time.

"I think our doors are open way too much for him," Bowie manager Brad Komminsk says. "I think we've gone way too far out of our way for him. He'll sit around and talk to anybody. But I think he needs some time of his own."

"He handles it well. It's good for him to learn how to talk to the media and to be able to do it in your own time frame. He's going to get a lot of attention when he goes up, no doubt about it. This is probably the largest media market in the league, with Baltimore and Washington. The only thing worse might be if he was playing in Trenton with the Yankees. But he gets plenty here, no doubt about it.

"He's just one of 24 guys out there and I think that's the way he looks at it, only with deeper pockets."

To Wieters, fielding questions is good for him and the organization if he balances time for interviews with the necessary pregame tasks. He is reluctant to decline a request but has learned to ask reporters to accommodate his schedule.

"It's not just one or two or three newspapers or magazines. It's a number of media groups who want to talk to you a little bit, which is great any time you can get that exposure," Wieters says. "But at the same time, you're getting paid to play baseball and you just have to watch out to where, if that takes away from your ability to get prepared or your ability to play on the field, that's when you've got to cut it back a little bit and say, 'I'm a baseball player first and everything else will take care of itself.' "