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Orioles' Wieters goes to minors, but for how long?

March 29, 2009

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Much of the conversation in the Baltimore Orioles camp this spring has centered upon a player who won't even be on the opening day roster.

Although catcher Matt Wieters was assigned to Baltimore's minor league camp Sunday, it probably won't be long before the team's prized prospect becomes a fixture in the Orioles' starting lineup.

"He's beyond his years. What a great kid. I mean, really and truly," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I told him there's only been one or two other guys in all my years that I can equate him with. They don't come around that often."

The 22-year-old Wieters was drafted by Baltimore with the fifth overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. The switch-hitting catcher was a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech, and his performance last year during his first professional season did nothing to discourage the notion that he is poised to enjoy a long and productive major league career.

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Wieters batted .345 with 15 home runs for Class A Frederick during the first half, then hit .365 with 12 homers for Double-A Bowie.

The only thing stopping him from stepping into an Orioles uniform is, well, the Orioles. And maybe just a little bit more experience.

"He's not perfect," Trembley said. "There are still areas for him to improve on."

Wieters has never played above the Double-A level, so perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to give him a month or so of seasoning with Triple-A Norfolk. Plus, Baltimore can delay his eligibility for free agency for an entire season by delaying his promotion until mid-April -- no small factor in dealing with a player who is expected to bloom into a star.

"There are very few adjustments he has to make, and I feel those are not anything all that big," said former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, who's in camp as an instructor. "Giving a target a little bit better, where to hold your hand when the ball is on the way, how to set up with men in scoring position. All of that is easily correctable.

"I think he is head and shoulders ahead of any other catcher in the minor leagues. Plus, there's what he can do with a bat. He's a big, strong switch-hitter. He's the whole package."

During his first spring training with the Orioles last year, Wieters went 1-for-9. This spring, he went 13-for-39 (.333) with a homer, five RBIs and four walks.

"I was comfortable last year around the team, but this year I know a lot more guys. I think the biggest thing is I'm more comfortable around the plate," Wieters said. "I don't feel like I have to swing at every pitch. I can sort of wait for the pitcher to come to me a little bit more this year."

Said Trembley: "I think he's improved in a lot of different ways. Last year, he came in here, his poise was great, his makeup was great, I think everybody knows that. But I think he was pressuring a little bit."

Wieters knew from the outset of his second camp that it was very unlikely he would be playing in Baltimore in April. So instead of treating every at-bat as if it was an audition, he just walked to the plate hopeful of gaining experience against major league pitching. He will continue his education with Norfolk, but it's evident he won't be enrolled in class there for long.

"He understands there are a lot of things out of his control. He needs to play," Trembley said. "I have no problem with anything he does -- the way he catches, the way he throws, the way he calls the game. I have no problem with any of it. It's going to get better the more experience he has and the more he plays."

Gregg Zaun will be behind the plate for Baltimore on opening day, but his tenure as the starter might be measured in months, rather than years. When Wieters gets the call to join the Orioles, he won't be asked to watch from the dugout.

"He's not going to be a backup catcher. If he's here, he's going to play," Trembley said.

For now, Wieters is content to wait.

"When it happens, it happens. It's going to be a great feeling no matter what day it happens," Wieters said. "And when it does, it's something that hopefully can be for a long time."

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