FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As of today, the game's best prospect is named Matt Wieters. Everybody seems to think so.
He is a catcher, 6-foot-5, a switch-hitter, a Scott Boras guy out of Georgia Tech. He was drafted in June 2007, after which Boras got him $6 million. He played some high-A and Double-A ball last season, when he got himself 400-and-some professional at-bats, and now it's year two and his left leg is running like a piston on the first day of big-league camp.
If it's been a decade or more since you last visited the Orioles' camp – and, really, why wouldn't it be? – now might be a good time to go back, because Wieters, apparently, is going to be that special.
He is friendly and outgoing early on a Sunday morning. Around him, teammates – mostly pitchers for the next few days – are summoned for their physicals, returning with cotton balls taped to the crooks of their elbows. Around the corner, Koji Uehara, the new pitcher from Japan, stares for uncomfortably long times at teammates, then turns to his locker, where he's taped six sheets of paper that hold the names and photos of almost every player in camp.
The joint smells like new luggage and suntan lotion. And a little like last place.
Right in the middle of it all, Wieters sits in a folding chair. He's in full uniform. You know, ready. He's working that long stare into the back of his locker, working that been-there-done-that posture, but the left leg just keeps bouncing and jabbering, giving him away.
He kicked around big-league camp a little last season, but he was just passing through. This is different. And while Orioles execs have little intention of having him open the season in Baltimore, he's close, and everybody knows it, including Matt Wieters, though he's pretty level-headed.
"This game," he says, "has a good way of humbling you. It's a tough game."
This from a guy who, in his only professional season, batted .345 in the Carolina League and .365 in the Eastern League. Over 130 games, he hit 27 home runs, walked 82 times and struck out 76 times. Before that, in college, when he wasn't being the All-American catcher, he was the shut-down closer, stripping off the gear and pitching the ninth inning.
"But," he says, "it's not a game where you're going to shoot 60 percent from the field or make all your free throws."
Chances are, he'll put in his innings in Triple-A for a few months, benefiting his stroke(s) and his behind-the-plate education. That way, too, his arbitration and free agency clocks won't start too early, an important consideration when you're going to be buried in the AL East for at least a few years anyway.
Yeah, Wieters has heard all that. He shakes his head. He's worked on this answer.
"We're a long way from that," he says.
We'll see. Don Werner, the Orioles' roving catching instructor, said he has saved his favorite coaching tip for Wieters: "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."
A guy that size, Werner said, even out of college, has footwork issues. Not Wieters.
A young catcher, he said, almost always has either a strong arm or a quick release. Wieters has both.
He said Wieters, on his first day in Double-A Bowie, threw down to second base and handcuffed the shortstop. The throw didn't bounce.
So, of course, you wouldn't blame him for wanting to get this thing going. The first drill is an hour away, and he's up and circling the room and back in his chair. Beside him, Gregg Zaun, sits easily. He is wearing earphones. He's found a Sunday crossword, the big one, and pokes at that. The first drill, he knows, will find him. He certainly won't have to go looking for it.
Zaun has played 14 seasons. Sometime this summer he'll catch his 1,000th game. He's done this for seven teams, including the Orioles, now, twice. At nearly 38, he's graying and a little blocky, a professional catcher who's lent a veteran touch to some very good pitching staffs.
The kid to his right has jumped up, run off again.
"I remember being in camp the first time," he says. "I don't remember ever being the can't-miss prospect. I was never that guy. It's got to be an exciting time. The entire world's in front of him."
Zaun was drafted in the 17th round, 20 years ago. It wasn't so long ago, however, that he doesn't remember when he began to believe in who he was in the big leagues and, just as important, when pitchers began to believe in him. That's the real journey of the catcher.
"The important things come last," Zaun says. "They come slowly, as well."
It doesn't often happen after 130 minor league games, either. But, then, apparently Matt Wieters doesn't happen very often either.
- Matt Wieters