FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Don't tell Matt Wieters he's not going to make the team. Wieters, Baltimore's top prospect and perhaps the best in baseball, arrived at the Orioles' Spring Training complex Saturday looking comfortable and seeming confident in his ability to seize the starting catching job by the time the team breaks camp.
Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, has gone on record as saying that he'd prefer that Wieters begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk and progress to the Majors sometime before the All-Star break. That's MacPhail's mind-set, though, and Wieters prefers to think in terms of doing whatever he can to prepare himself for the long haul.
"We'll never know until it's that time. All you can do is work hard and play hard where they put you," Wieters said of his ultimate destination. "I think you come to every Spring Training trying to make the team. But more important than that, you're trying to work hard and you're trying to get better yourself. That's my goal for Spring Training."
If that's the case, then Wieters may have a tall order laid out in front of him. The switch-hitting backstop was named Baseball America's 2008 Minor League Player of the Year in his first full professional season, a campaign that saw him bat .345 with 15 home runs for Class A Frederick and .365 with 12 homers for Double-A Bowie.
Ordinarily, a season such as that might punch a player's ticket to the big leagues, but the Orioles prefer to play it cautiously with Wieters. Part of that is just a prudent decision, and part of it carries a financial aspect: If Wieters is held out of the Majors for the first month, Baltimore can effectively delay his first shot at free agency for a full year.
The Orioles don't publicly discuss that last point, and they went out of their way to sign veteran Gregg Zaun to potentially start behind the plate at the beginning of the year and later serve as a mentor. Manager Dave Trembley isn't ruling anything out, but he did say Saturday that the deck is likely stacked against Wieters in terms of starting on Opening Day.
"I think everybody should come into this camp with the goal in mind that they are going to break and be one of our 25," Trembley said. "But obviously, the realistic point of view is that's not going to happen. But I'm sure Matt Wieters, just like everybody else, their goal is to come in here and do everything they possibly can to make this club."
For Wieters, that just means showing up and showing what he can do between the lines. The Orioles are well aware of his ability and want to challenge him, but they also want him to earn his promotion with a hot month at Norfolk. And that's just fine for Wieters, who said that it hasn't been real hard for him to ignore all the hype.
"You always hear that the big jump is from high A to Double-A," he said of his debut season, "But at the same time, you plan and you prepare in the offseason for that success. If you get it, great. You've got to be prepared for that. And if you don't get it, you've got to be prepared to rebound and get back to where you know you should be."
The Orioles traded Ramon Hernandez to make room for Wieters on the active roster, but they still know that he's not exactly a finished product. There are outside perceptions that the former first-round pick is ready for the Majors offensively and that his defense will take more time, but Trembley said that isn't entirely accurate.
"From my conversations with him and my conversations [with people] that have worked with him, I think that's something that can be easily said, because he's a young guy and he doesn't have a whole lot of experience in professional baseball," Trembley said. "But I think Matt will benefit from having Zaun here at camp -- his experience. I think he'll also help me. He knows [Brad] Bergesen, [David] Hernandez, [Chris] Tillman. He knows [Jake] Arrieta. ... I called him last year to ask him about some of the pitchers we had that he was kind of catching every day. He gave me a thumbnail sketch -- not only on their ability, but their makeup. And he was right on on every one of them."
Wieters said he was looking forward to getting to know Zaun, a process that started a little later in the day. And he also expressed thanks to Hernandez, who helped him learn the ropes last year in Spring Training. Wieters spent a good portion of the offseason working out and preparing for his big league debut -- whenever that may happen.
"These last two months, I've really been hitting the weight room hard," he said. "I got married in December, so that occupied a good bit of the first half of my offseason. It was a busy offseason, but at the same time, I feel like I'm ready."
That, of course, remains to be seen. And no matter when he comes up, the Orioles are eagerly awaiting his arrival.
"It's another thing that's great for us and good for the game," said Trembley. "But the best part of it is Wieters has it in perspective. He doesn't look upon this that he's better than anybody else. He knows [he's good], [and] everybody knows. But he doesn't draw attention to himself. I think that's the way he wants it. He's like Nicky [Markakis]."