Matt Wieters can't miss -- and for the Orioles' sake, he'd better not
Wieters, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound switch-hitting catcher, was the No. 5 pick in 2007
He split last season between Class A and Double A, batting .355 with 27 homers
The 22-year-old will likely begin this year at Triple A but will be in the majors soon
Matt Wieters is new, and he is not. Old, and he is not. Rare, and he is not. For the Baltimore Orioles, who made him the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, he is the future, and he is not (at least not yet). The best prospect in baseball, and there is hardly anyone around the game who would suggest that he is not.
Of course, each spring there is one player who is labeled a "can't miss," a guaranteed future star, a sure thing. And as often as not, the only sure thing about that player is that he is sure to disappoint. This year the mantle has been given to Wieters, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound switch-hitting catcher who possesses a laser arm so strong and accurate his college coach thought he had a big league future as a pitcher, and a bat so potent he's already being compared to two-time American League batting champion and fellow backstop Joe Mauer, but with the switch-hitting ability (and maybe the power) of Mark Teixeira.
To the many fans who will be learning about him for the first time this spring, Wieters remains a relatively unknown commodity. But to the scouts who have watched him since his high school days in South Carolina and through an All-America career at Georgia Tech, and to those hard-core Orioles fans desperately hoping that he'll lead their team back to respectability, he has been targeted as one of the game's brightest future stars for almost two years.
When he arrives in Fort Lauderdale for spring training next month he'll be trying to make a big-league roster for the first time, but he'll also be trying to justify the significant hype that has had those in the know anticipating his ascension to the majors for some time.
"Matt is in that special class of players," says Orioles director of player development David Stockstill. "He was already at a level when we signed him that he was unlike anyone we saw. The only thing he doesn't do extremely well is run fast. Everything else he does very, very well."
Much of Wieters' success comes from his maturity. He is a 22-year-old who married his college sweetheart this winter and who often behaves as though he has spent his whole life around the game -- and in some ways, he has. His father, Richard, was a minor league pitcher who instilled in his son the early lessons of what it would take to be successful in the game and how he should act along the way.
"He's very professional in everything he does, as professional as anyone I've ever seen for his age," says Stockstill. "He accepts instruction very well and that's why he's as good as he is. He gives everything a chance."
Wieters didn't have to be convinced to give switch-hitting a chance when his father first suggested it to him years ago. Having seen the demand for switch-hitters and for catchers, his father reasoned that if his son were both, he would have a much better chance of success.
"My dad knew how rare it was to be a switch-hitter and especially a switch-hitting catcher, and he knew guys could make it to the major leagues faster if they did that," says Wieters.
Switch-hitting catchers aren't that unique these days, but ones with Wieters' size and complete skill set are extremely rare. There have been 86 switch-hitting catchers in baseball history (including 17 a year ago), and current ones range from old hands such as Gregg Zaun -- the Baltimore backstop who will mentor Wieters in spring training and likely keep the starting job until the rookie is ready -- to last year's rookie-of-the-moment, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, to the man whom Wieters is most likely to be compared to, fellow Georgia Tech alum and current free agent Jason Varitek.
"They're totally different personalities, but very similar in how they play the game," says Yellow Jackets head coach Danny Hall, who coached both players at Tech. "A lot of the great ones make the game slow down and look easy, and Matt is able to do that."