When Matt Wieters makes his Major League debut tonight, he'll do so with the unremitting glare of a media spotlight that has been trained on him ever since he was drafted. Wieters, Baltimore's top prospect, comes to the big leagues with huge expectations that would be hard for anyone to live up to, let alone a rookie catcher.
In fact, the Orioles recognized his unique appeal and announced his promotion three days in advance, a gesture all but unprecedented from a conservatively run team.
Still, this much is certain: Wieters has lived up to his pedigree as a high first-round draftee and has sent scouts, statistical analysts and rank-and-file fans into instant hyperbole mode regarding his ultimate potential. He'll get his first chance to live up to it tonight against Detroit, and the world will be watching.
"I've never been around a prospect with this much hype, and it's something he'll need to get used to," said David Stockstill, Baltimore's director of player development. "It's something he's already begun to deal with, but it's magnified tremendously at the Major League level. That's something he's going to have to live with, and the better he does on the field, the more of it there will be. So hopefully, this is just the beginning."
Wieters, the fifth overall selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, is used to widespread acclaim. The switch-hitter was regarded as the best position player in his Draft year, and after signability concerns dropped him a few picks, the Orioles picked him and eventually rewarded him with a contract worth $6 million.
Immediately, the clock began ticking. Wieters didn't sign until moments before a deadline to agree to terms or re-enter the Draft process for the following year. Ever since, he's made the decision seem like a bargain. Joe Jordan, Baltimore's scouting director, said the Orioles were quite sure they had the right player all along.
"You've got to have a certain level of conviction to ask for $6 million to sign a guy," said Jordan, who started scouting Wieters in high school. "With any of these guys, when you see something you like, you start building your library of looks. The more looks you get, the better, and I think that's how we all form our opinions on what they're going to be like as players. And hopefully, it's based on 20, 30 or 40 looks at the player over a period of years. That's kind of the way it was with Matt, and the more you watched him, the more things you saw him do."
That's the way it's always been for Wieters, who was a schoolboy star at Stratford High School in South Carolina. His coach there, John Chalus, has known Wieters for most of his life and characterizes him as a hard-working player who just wanted to play to the best of his abilities and have fun competing along the way.
Chalus said that Wieters never tried to separate himself from his peers, not even as a rare four-year varsity player or as an All-American and All-State player in his senior year. Stratford went to the state finals in Wieters' senior year and won it the year after he left, thanks to another first-round draftee in first baseman Justin Smoak.
And now, Chalus spends much of his time telling players not to try to live up to their famous alumni.
"A lot of the players that have come after them have wanted to be Matt Wieters and wanted to be Justin Smoak instead of just wanting to be themselves," said Chalus. "Everybody's different, and there are differences between Matt and Justin. In baseball, you've got to find some of your own individuality. You can't try to be somebody, and that's something Matt and Justin never tried to do. They just tried to be themselves playing the game."
In Wieters' case, that was more than good enough to earn a scholarship to Georgia Tech, one of the premier baseball programs in the country. The youngster was drawn to Georgia Tech by the promise of a good education and by the knowledge that switch-hitting stars Jason Varitek and Mark Teixeira had played for the Yellow Jackets.
And from there, it was coach Danny Hall's job to help bring out the best in Wieters. Hall, when reached recently by cell phone, said that Wieters came to Georgia Tech with all the tools for success. He credited Wieters' father Richard -- a former college and Minor League player -- with teaching him the intricacies of the game.
"He came in here as a pretty advanced baseball player just in terms of his mental ability," said Hall. "I'd say this: We've had a lot of good players, and a lot of those have been very successful at the Major League level. I'd say we've had guys that were good players and guys that are special players, and Wieters is a special one."
Hall just had to point Wieters in the right direction, and he was rewarded when Wieters became one of just three players in program history to be named a first-team All-American more than once. Wieters joined Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra in that class and finished as a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as a junior.
"The thing we had to answer and he had to answer was the question of his size," said Hall. "But by his junior year, there was never a question about it being a hindrance to him being a very good catcher. We pitched him less his junior year and caught him a lot more. And while I think he's going to be an All-Star-caliber catcher at the Major League level, if it ever fails, he could pitch in the big leagues. He was throwing 97-98 [mph] with a great slider."
If it sounds like a real-life version of The Natural, it's not far off from the truth. Wieters packed away his pitching gear once he turned professional, but his first Minor League season was one for the record books.
The backstop batted .345 with 12 home runs for Class A Frederick and .365 with 12 homers for Double-A Bowie en route to being named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. That really kicked the Wieters bandwagon into overdrive and caused some publications to grow more bullish on his future.
Baseball Prospectus went as far to say that Wieters would be one of the best catchers in the Major Leagues the day he made his debut, and prospect expert Kevin Goldstein saw no reason to dispute that Friday. Goldstein, who used to write for Baseball America, said that Baseball Prospectus saw Wieters through a double-sided lens.
"We'll start with the stat world," said Goldstein. "When our guys did what they did with his numbers -- and Clay Davenport is the one who does most of the translations -- the question was, 'What do these numbers in the Carolina League or the Eastern League really equal?' And his stats in the Carolina League weren't just great, they were the best translated stats out of the Carolina League we've ever seen in our data. And then, when you translate what he did at Bowie, he had the best statistics we'd ever seen translated out of the Eastern League.
"So that was the stat side. My role is more of the scouting side, and you talk to scouts and they tell you, 'He's a monster. What are some weaknesses in his game? I don't know.' Maybe he's a little slow on the throw, but you're nit-picking. He's a 6-foot-5 switch-hitting catcher with power from both sides and a great approach."
Goldstein went on to say that Wieters' two-month stint at Triple-A Norfolk did nothing to change his evaluation, and Stockstill said that the catcher had learned a lot about calling a game from manager Gary Allenson. Wieters can also credit an assist from Baltimore manager Dave Trembley during Spring Training.
Trembley, by way of conversation, challenged Wieters to look at video of hitters from around the Major Leagues. And weeks later, when Wieters was about to be sent out, Trembley asked him for how many teams he'd broken down. Wieters had just one team to go at that point, impressing Trembley yet again with his diligence.
|A look at how other catchers did in their MLB debuts.|
|1988||Craig Biggio||0-for-2, one walk|
|1991||Ivan Rodriguez||1-for-4, two RBIs|
|1992||Mike Piazza||3-for-3, one walk|
|2004||Joe Mauer||2-for-3, two walks|
How many players would've done that? In Trembley's experience, the answer is down to a select few. The manager, who spent 20 years in the Minor Leagues, said he didn't challenge Wieters as a test. He just did it to simply help him get better, and he was tremendously encouraged by the way Wieters answered the bell.
"I think, right away, you can tell the good ones. They stand out," said Trembley. "He just looks like he belongs. He looks like he's been here before. He doesn't have an air about him that he thinks he's better or thinks he knows it all. He doesn't want any special favors to go his way. I just think he knows he's got to earn his stripes, and he's not intimidated. The real good ones that come up from the Minor Leagues, it's fun to be able to help them. They trust you, they grow comfortable around you and you make the environment such that it's not centered around them. You just make them feel like they can fit in, and that's all I want to do with Matt. Just let him play."
That's what the Orioles hope to do, and they hope that people will be able to judge Wieters by his play and not by any set of unreasonable expectations. He may not come out and play MVP-caliber baseball right out of the chute, but there's every reason to believe that Wieters will have a long and fruitful career ahead of him.
And judging by some famous catchers, his first night might not be a huge event between the lines. Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk all went hitless in their big league debuts, and top overall picks B.J. Surhoff and Joe Mauer went 1-for-4 and 2-for-3, respectively, in their first night in a big league lineup.
Still, there will be plenty of eyes on Wieters' first-night box score.
"I just find it entertaining," said Goldstein of the massive hype surrounding Wieters and his debut. "I can count well into the double-digits all the 'What's wrong with Matt Wieters' e-mails I have, and I look up and he's hitting .300/.400/.500. That tells you how good he is. He's doing that, and people are asking, 'What's wrong with him?' He got off to a slow start and I know there were some adjustment issues. I think there was some frustration issues, and then he played through [a minor] hamstring problem. And then he started hitting like Matt Wieters. Six weeks is obviously never a great sample size, but the whole start of the season gives me zero concern."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.