The Washington Times - May 27, 2008, 02:26PM

By JAY LeBLANC
May 27, 2008

The Baltimore Orioles made arguably the biggest splash in last year’s amateur draft when they selected Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters with the fifth overall pick. The 6’ 5”, 230 pound switch-hitter was considered by many in baseball to be the best positional player available, but the fact that the Scott Boras client was reportedly seeking a signing bonus of $11 million - and had the option of returning to school for his final season of eligibility if his demands were not met - had some teams scared off. Baltimore, unwilling to pass up a chance at a potential franchise player, rolled the dice and then stuck to their guns from a financial standpoint, signing Wieters to a minor league deal that included a $6 million signing bonus just minutes before the Aug. 16 deadline.

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With very little time remaining in the 2007 minor league season, the Orioles assigned Wieters to their short-season Class A New York-Penn League affiliate, the Aberdeen IronBirds, to work out with the team and get his first taste of professional baseball, but he didn’t appear in any games. Thus far in 2008, he has made the Orioles’ decision to commit such a large sum of money to a player with no professional experience look like a wise one. The team showed confidence in Wieters by having him start the season with their advanced Class A Carolina League club, the Frederick Keys, and he opened the season on fire and hasn’t looked back. He was named Orioles Minor League Player of the Month for April and has twice earned Carolina League Player of the Week honors.

The fact that Wieters’ stock has risen significantly since the beginning of this season shows just how talented he is, especially considering that Baseball America ranked him as the No. 1 prospect in the Orioles system and the 12th best in all of baseball before he took a single cut as a pro. After another stellar performance yesterday, Wieters is now hitting .351 with a league-best 12 home runs and 32 RBI in 154 at bats, and if he continues to dominate single-A competition, a promotion to the double-A Bowie Baysox can’t be far off. With the young backstop tearning the cover off the ball in the minors - and Ramon Hernandez doing precisely the opposite with the big-league club - there’s speculation that Wieters could find himself in the Orioles’ lineup as soon as the end of this summer. I recently had a chance to speak with the player some are already referring to as the future of the franchise:

Q: When you heard you had been drafted by the Orioles, what was your first reaction? Were you excited?

A: Oh yeah. The dream since you’re a little kid is to play Major League Baseball, and any team you play for is a great experience. Baltimore, being on the East Coast and close to home (Goose Creek, S.C.), it just seemed like a good fit.

Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you try to model yourself after?

A:Chipper Jones was always my guy growing up because he’s a switch-hitter and the Braves games are on TV a lot, so I grew up watching him and I try to model my swing sort of like his.

Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you come into an at-bat looking for a specific pitch, or do you just kind of react to what’s thrown?

A: Well, what you’ve got to do, early, especially - is look for a pitch you can hit and then later, if you get two strikes, you’re going to just have to battle. I think that’s the approach most times going into at-bats - looking for a pitch you can hit hard, and then going into battle mode.

Q: To what extent do you utilize videotape and scouting reports when preparing to face a certain pitcher?

A: Scouting reports are huge, especially because in this league you see guys, sometimes, some pitchers, four and five times, so it’s good to be able to remember what they threw you and that sort of thing. Videotape, it’s not as accessible in Minor League Baseball, but at the same time, any time you can get your hands on it, you’re happy to look at it.

Q: What are some of the aspects of your game that you’re trying to improve upon this year?

A: This year I’m trying to be able to get ready for a 140-game season, because coming from college and playing 60 games, now I’ve got to get my body and my mind in shape for 140 games.

Q: Which is closer to big-league ready right now - your hitting or your defense?

A: I think they both need some work. You’ve just got to keep working hard on both aspects of the game, and hopefully you’ll get there one day.

Q: When do you see yourself making your big-league debut? Do you have a specific goal in mind?

A: No goal. Whenever they let me I’ll be excited to be there, and it will be a great experience whenever it is.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.