'He is the switch-hitting Jesus'

BALTIMORE -- On the day before catcher Matt Wieters would make a major league debut so anticipated it was announced three days in advance, there was a different atmosphere in the Orioles' clubhouse. There was an air of excitement and expectation, with just a hint of sarcasm.

"Gee, I wonder why you're here," one Oriole said to a national writer. Another veteran Oriole said with a wry smile, but without bitterness or envy, "He is the switch-hitting Jesus."

Wieters, 23, is not here to save the Orioles. He joins an expanding list of good young players to come to Baltimore in the last five years, but none arrived this decorated, with this sort of welcome. Wieters was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008, he tore up the Arizona Fall League after last season, he hit .400 in spring training, and he has pounded Triple-A pitching at Norfolk over the last month.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds with power from both sides of the plate, and with every skill but speed, he has been compared to Joe Mauer.

"No, no," said a former catcher who has seen Wieters play, "he is Joe Mauer."

No one is that good, but Orioles manager Dave Trembley said of Wieters, "He's special. He has matured so much from one spring training to the next. He doesn't say much. He doesn't have all the answers. He's a baseball player. He's willing to learn."

Orioles GM Andy MacPhail said of Wieters' promotion: "It is time. He hit .260 in April. He hit about .360 in May. He hit in the Carolina League [last year]. We wanted to see him hit in the [Triple-A] International League. He checked that one off the list. The one thing you don't want to do with a ballyhooed prospect is to have to send him back. "

At Norfolk, Wieters hit .305 with a .387 on-base percentage and a .504 slugging percentage. He was sent there this spring to improve on his ability to hit the breaking ball, and now he's ready for the challenge of the big leagues. He comes with more than just power and a strong arm.

"He can really hit, but most big catchers who can hit supposedly aren't good at calling a game, and aren't good at blocking pitches, but he combines the two, which is very unusual," said Don Werner, the Orioles' roving minor league catching instructor.

"He has never called a game until pro ball; in college [at Georgia Tech], the pitching coach liked to do it. I asked Matt where he learned such a great feel for calling a game, and he told me growing up near Atlanta he and his dad used to watch [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine and [John] Smoltz all the time. That's a right-handed control guy, a lefty control guy and a right-handed power guy. Matt watched what those guys did to see how they got hitters out."

Not everyone is sold on Wieters. Some scouts say he doesn't present a good target and moves too much behind the plate.

"Sometimes he does have too much movement with his target," Werner said. "But that comes with experience."

One Oriole said Wieters hit "the softest .400 I've ever seen in spring training." Another Oriole said he isn't inquisitive enough. Some say he's too big to be a catcher and will have to move to first base.

"I disagree," Trembley said. "He moves well back behind the plate. He has good footwork. No one said Mauer [who is 6-5, 225 pounds] was too big. I'd love to have that guy."

Terry Kennedy caught in the big league for 14 years, two of them with the Orioles. He was 6-3, 220 pounds and was slow behind the plate.

"When I had problem catching, they would send a catching instructor who was 5-8," he said. "And I'd say, 'What do you know about what I'm going through?""

Werner, who is 6-1, said of Wieters: "It's not about size; it is about flexibility. You can be 5-10, but if you're not flexible, you can't catch. Matt is flexible and quick on his feet. And he presents a big target back there. Some of the pitchers that I've talked to say he's so big, they feel like they're 50 feet away, not 60. If he makes the pitcher happy, I'm happy."

Wieters' promotion to the big leagues is part of "the blueprint that Andy MacPhail laid out, piece by piece, and now we're implementing it," Trembley said. " We have [center fielder Adam] Jones, [right fielder Nick] Markakis, [second baseman Brian] Roberts and some pitchers here, and some others on the way. Now it's up to us to make them better. That's the fun part."

Jones is 23, and quickly becoming a star. Markakis is 25, and already is a star. Roberts, 31, is one of the best second basemen in the league. Left fielder Nolan Reimold is 25; he just hit the first walk-off home run of his career.

Hard-throwing David Hernandez, 24, a strikeout machine in the minor leagues, won his major league debut Thursday night against Detroit. Two nights earlier, Jason Berken, 25, won his major league debut with five innings against Toronto (add in Brad Bergesen and Koji Uehara this year, and the Orioles are the only team since 1900 to have four starting pitchers win in their major league debuts).

And those two aren't rated as highly as three other Oriole minor league pitchers, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta. Plus, Brandon Snyder, the Orioles' likely first baseman of the future, perhaps next season, is tearing it up at Double-A.

But Wieters is the centerpiece of the minor leaguers. The Orioles have lost their revered spot in Baltimore. The last year they finished above .500 was 1997. The team that once sold out almost every night drew 10,130 Tuesday night, the smallest crowd in the 19-year history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles are hoping that fans get more involved now that Wieters has arrived.

"Our fans have seen a good nucleus of young players; it's important for our fans to start to at least see the strategy of what we're doing here, and how we're going to do it," said MacPhail. "Fans in Baltimore have always had a keen interest in the Orioles' minor league system. They don't just know that Tillman is undefeated at Triple-A, and what Snyder is doing at Double-A right now. They know what's going on at [Class A] Delmarva."

Finally, there is real hope for the Orioles. It may not show in the standings for a few years, but talent is coming. And there is no more talented player in the system than Matt Wieters. The only concern among the players is that the hype might be too much, too early.

"There is a serious learning curve to catching in the major leagues," said Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun. "He's not going to just come right in here and hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs, and anchor a staff. If you want him to do well, leave him alone, and let him play."

That starts tonight.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.