The pile of paper crumpled high on the table caught the attention of Orioles president Andy MacPhail as soon as he entered the Baltimore clubhouse one afternoon last summer. Sitting around the table were several young Orioles, a group that included catcher Matt Wieters, 23, and pitchers Chris Tillman, 21, and Brian Matusz, then 22. "Derek Jeter!" one of them said.
As MacPhail drew nearer, he understood what was happening. His players, the rebuilding blocks of a once-proud franchise, were tearing through packs of baseball cards and delighting at the occasional premium find. Wieters himself is a gem, having ripped through just 169 minor league games between his selection with the fifth pick of the 2007 draft and his big league debut last May, an event so big in Baltimore that the Orioles announced it three days in advance and Camden Yards filled with more people than at the previous three games combined. The fans greeted him with a standing ovation before his first at bat.
"The ballyhoo for Matt Wieters has been unlike what I've seen before except for Mark Prior," said MacPhail, who was running the Cubs when Prior, the pitcher drafted second overall in the 2001 draft, made his big league debut the following year. "Seeing those guys opening baseball cards was a little reminder about keeping perspective. Matt is still just a young kid in this game."
This spring the searchlight for the Next Big Thing has shined most prominently on outfielder Jason Heyward, 20, of Atlanta, who is such a dangerous hitter the Braves have considered erecting nets to protect cars in the employee parking lot at their training complex from his home run bombs, and pitcher Stephen Strasburg, 21, of Washington, who quickly was dubbed Jesus by a teammate because of expectations that he is the franchise savior. But in Wieters, a switch-hitting, 6'5" young catcher, the Orioles are holding a cornerstone who invokes an even higher power: His teammates at Georgia Tech called him, simply, God.
Ace pitchers and power-hitting outfielders come along often enough to make the Next Big Thing commonplace, but the most recherché genus in the game—the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card—is the good-hit, good-field young catcher. It's what makes Joe Mauer of Minnesota, still only 26, so valuable. "I would agree there are fewer top catchers than aces," said Mike Arbuckle, senior adviser for scouting and player development for the Royals. "I don't think you can count more than 10 legitimate frontline catchers. A lot of clubs have average guys catching every day."
Catcher is the worst-hitting position, by OPS and batting average, in the major leagues. Only four catchers last year had an OPS better than the overall major league average (.751) with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title: Mauer, Victor Martinez of Boston, Brian McCann of Atlanta and A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox. Good catchers are so hard to find that teams routinely swing and miss when it comes to selecting catchers even at the top of the draft. Of the 420 players taken among the top 30 picks in the past 14 drafts, only one pick has managed to catch even 100 games in the big leagues so far: Mauer, the No. 1 selection nine years ago.
And that is why Wieters is Baltimore's rare bird. Once known as Mauer with Power (before Mauer slugged 28 homers last year), Wieters is the seldom-seen catcher with the all-around game to be a franchise player. As MacPhail put it while trying to stay subdued, as if wearing oven mitts to handle the hype, "If we're fortunate enough to have a durable, switch-hitting catcher who handles a pitching staff, throws out runners and hits in the middle of the lineup for years to come, we'll have something any club would love to have. And nothing indicates that he can't be that kind of player."
Yet the Orioles still gave an 11th-round draft pick last year, high schooler Michael Ohlman, $995,000—late first-round money. Why? "He's a catcher," MacPhail says. "Obviously the demand far exceeds the supply."
Wieters has all the tools to become that rare impact catcher, especially his patience and power at the plate. His minor league numbers (.343, 32 homers, 121 RBIs in those 169 games) were so dominant that the 2009 PECOTA forecast system of Baseball Prospectus added to Wietersmania when it spit out an MVP-caliber projection for a first-year player: .311, 31, 102 with a .939 OPS.
Wieters wound up with a respectable .753 OPS as a rookie in 96 games. He hit only nine home runs, but they were enough to highlight his power to all fields: two were hit to the opposite field, three to the pull field, and four to center. His hitting prowess from both sides of the plate fits the profile of Boston's Martinez. Wieters has a stronger throwing arm than Martinez—he threw out the speedy Carl Crawford twice in the same game last September—though his footwork and agility need improvement, as might be expected from such a tall, wide-shouldered backstop.