SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Matt Wieters casts quite the presence when his 6’5″, 225-pound frame steps into the batter’s box, and even when he crouches behind the plate for the Baltimore Orioles.
The All-Star catcher is assuming a leadership role in the clubhouse just as large, and not a moment too soon.
Wieters has his hands full this spring while the Orioles try to establish a rotation from about a dozen candidates. Manager Buck Showalter has no idea who is going to be on the mound to start opening day, which means everyone is leaning heavily on Wieters, 25, to help round the staff into shape.
In his fourth season in the big leagues, the Orioles are fast becoming his team. Along with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, Wieters has asserted himself at the top of the pecking order. He’s quick to pull a young pitcher aside early in this camp to offer advice, eager to catch the new pitchers in the bullpen to get to know their stuff and always at his locker in the team’s beaming new spring training facility to serve as a spokesman for a team that has finished in last place for four straight seasons.
“As a catcher, you’re going to have to be a leader with the pitching staff, no matter what,” Wieters said Wednesday. “But especially with our team, we’re young and getting new guys in here every year. Along with Nick and Adam and guys like that, we feel like it’s sort of our team now.”
It’s exactly what the Orioles envisioned when they drafted Wieters with the fifth overall pick in 2007. He was one of the most highly touted prospects in the game and ripped through Baltimore’s farm system before breaking into the big leagues in 2009.
After a disappointing first full season in 2010, Wieters hit .262 with 22 homers and 68 RBIs last season and threw out 37 percent of base runners who tried to steal on him. He made his first All-Star team and won a Gold Glove.
For a young team competing in the powerful AL East, Wieters’ emergence as a star that wants to lead a once-proud franchise back to relevance is something tangible to build on for Baltimore.
“Matt’s doing more and more of that,” Showalter said. “The beauty of Matt is he doesn’t force it. It’s sincere. His words carry weight and he knows it so he uses them cautiously. And his timing has been impeccable.”
It didn’t come naturally. Polite and soft-spoken by nature, it’s taken a few seasons for him to feel comfortable speaking up.
“I definitely like to be the quiet leader,” he said. “But I think each year when things need to be said, it gets a little easier to say them.”
Now, if he can just learn Mandarin and Japanese, he should be all set. The Orioles signed Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and Japanese lefty Tsuyoshi Wada to try to compete for spots in the rotation, so hopefully Wieters saved some of that $6 million signing bonus he got when he was drafted for Rosetta Stone.
“I wish it was that easy,” Wieters said with a chuckle. “I’m excited now that once we start throwing bullpens, that’s when the communication really opens up. I’m definitely trying to catch our new guys as much as possible.”
He started on Wednesday with a session with Chen, beginning what will be a lengthy process of getting to know Chen’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. An interpreter was there to help with the conversation, but there won’t be one there during the game when they’re trying to go at the Yankees lineup.
“You can do a little bit of that talking with them, but it’s going to take a few games before you really get a good feel,” Wieters said. “Once you get a good feel, it’s always going to get better and better. Hopefully we can get that feel quickly in spring training and once we get into the season just continue that improvement.”
In just three short big league seasons, Wieters has gone from the hot prospect everyone is itching to the stud veteran that every hot prospect wants to meet. On Wednesday, 19-year-old Dylan Bundy threw a bullpen session during the morning workout, though not to Wieters.
The Orioles picked Bundy fourth overall in the draft last year, and the fresh-faced kid had a few stars in his eyes when he thought about one day taking the sign and firing a fastball toward that big target.
“I just can’t wait to throw to him,” Bundy said. “He’s going to be able to teach me a lot about hitters, about pitches, why to throw that pitch, when to throw it. I’m excited, if I get to throw to him.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)