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THE TOTAL PACKAGE Rare Bird
Tom Verducci
March 15, 2010
Highly drafted catchers who can hit and play defense come around less often than playoff games at Camden Yards—which is why Baltimore has built a suddenly promising future around Matt Wieters. No two ways about it: The Orioles are sitting on the most sought-after commodity in the game.
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March 15, 2010

The Total Package Rare Bird

Highly drafted catchers who can hit and play defense come around less often than playoff games at Camden Yards—which is why Baltimore has built a suddenly promising future around Matt Wieters. No two ways about it: The Orioles are sitting on the most sought-after commodity in the game.

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To live up to expectations, the 230-pound Wieters will have to overcome the brutal washout rate of highly drafted catchers, the physical toll of the job and the temptation of the occasional double cheeseburger with fries. Wieters reported to camp this spring having cut his body fat by 5% by making an effort to eat healthier. "The biggest difference," Wieters says, "is when you actually get up to the drive-through window and say, 'I'll take the grilled chicken,' and go from there."

Like Mauer, whose grandfather, a onetime White Sox minor leaguer, groomed him to be a lefthanded hitter, Wieters was encouraged to hit from the left side at an early age. His father, Richard, a former minor league pitcher for the Braves and the White Sox, began to work with Matt at age five on catching and switch-hitting at their home in Goose Creek, S.C. "He got me to turn around and swing from the left side," Wieters says. "He said, 'If you like it, keep doing it. You're going to really like it once they start throwing breaking balls.' And that's when I really did like it."

The father and son would play a guessing game whenever they watched games on television together. "We'd guess which pitch was coming next and see which one could get it right," Wieters says. "I liked catching right away, because if I had to play short or first, I wasn't in on every play. Catching can keep you sane. You can go 0 for 4 at the plate and still feel like you had a pretty good game because of all the responsibilities on defense."

Matt pitched a bit himself, even in his three seasons at Georgia Tech, where he nailed down 16 saves with a mid-90s fastball. In one game as a freshman at Miami, Wieters hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth to put the Yellow Jackets ahead, then pitched the bottom of the ninth for the save. On that day, the God nickname was bestowed.

"Matt told me there were times he'd catch the eighth inning," Orioles manager Dave Trembley says, "and then go to the bullpen to warm up—with his shin guards on. If they took the lead, he was coming in to close. If not, he would go back and catch. Imagine that."

Represented by Scott Boras, Wieters slipped to the Orioles with the fifth pick of the 2007 draft but still came away with the biggest bonus given that year ($6 million), even more than the No. 1 pick, pitcher David Price of Tampa Bay. The Pirates, with Wieters still on the board at No. 4, took the more signable Daniel Moskos, a lefthanded pitcher out of Clemson. They saved $3.525 million. Moskos turns 24 next month and has a 4.61 career ERA in the minors.

The Orioles were thrilled with their good fortune. The franchise has never had a Gold Glove catcher and hasn't had an All-Star backstop since Mickey Tettleton in 1989. Then again, Wieters faces this daunting track record: Over the past quarter century only two top five picks have made the All-Star Game as a catcher: Mauer and the Phillies' Mike Lieberthal.

"Why did Ben Davis fail?" asks Milwaukee G.M. Doug Melvin, referring to the second overall pick in 1995, who bounced among seven organizations and hit .237. "It's something of a mystery what happens with catchers. But it's like quarterback in the NFL. They are so hard to find that the tendency is to overdraft them."

"I've had no success drafting catchers," said Arizona G.M. Josh Byrnes, a former assistant to Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. "I remember my last [off-season] in Boston, when our free-agent class was going to include David Ortiz, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. We felt like Varitek was the Number 1 priority because the position made him the hardest guy to replace."

Says Arbuckle, "I see a couple of phenomenon at work. One is that kids don't want to catch today. Kids grow up in a softer environment. It's just too much work, too dirty and too hard.

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