Friday, August 1, 2008

Matt Wieters and September Call-ups

Peter Schmuck, who is apparently going to fill the void left by Roch Kubatko’s departure from the Baltimore Sun, goes over the pros and cons of calling up Matt Wieters this September:

The Pros: Wieters would get some big-league experience and, if he can hold his own against major league pitching, garner some extra confidence going into spring training next year. He also would get a chance to bond with his teammates and learn a thing or two from Ramon Hernandez.

The Cons: His presence with the major league club would put the service time clock in motion, and any significant playing time could wear him down and make him more susceptible to injury, since he has never played anywhere near that deep into a season.

He notes that the service time issue only becomes a concern if Wieters hops the Norfolk shuttle over the next few years and an extra thirty days of service time become a real issue in his quest for super two arbitration eligibility. I posed the arbitration/free agency question to Keith Law in an chat last week, and Law responded “Assuming he's going to start 2009 in the big leagues, a Sept call-up wouldn't affect either. It's 30 days of extra service.”

Since Ramon Hernandez is a free agent at the end of the season and Wieters has proven himself worthy of his top prospect label, there is no reason to believe that Wieters will begin 2009 anywhere other than behind the plate in Baltimore. Equally as important, there is no evidence to suggest that, aside from some minor adjustments common to virtually all young players, Wieters will struggle enough to be forced back to the minors. Among the scouting community, there is virtually unanimous agreement that Wieters is not only the Orioles catcher of the very near future but also a significant long-term building block for the organization.

Thus, if one of the cons isn’t really an issue, the question becomes whether or not Wieters is better served getting his big league-ready feet wet in September or relaxing by the pool in Florida. Certainly that oversimplifies the issue, mostly because there is a significant chance that Wieters could spend much of September in Bowie playing in the Eastern League playoffs. The Baysox are currently in second place in the league’s Southern Division, 3.5 games behind first place Akron and 2.0 games ahead of third place Harrisburg; no other team in the division is in playoff contention. The top two teams will face off in a best-of-five divisional playoff that begins on September 3 with the winner advancing to the championship series, another best-of-five contest. Since the Orioles seem committed to keeping a core of prospects together at Bowie and allowing them to “learn to win” together (a strategy of which I very much approve), it is far from inconceivable that Bowie’s season would last until mid-September. At that point, there would be just two weeks of the Baltimore season remaining.

Wieters has played 102 minor league games thus far, but only 72 at catcher; the Baysox have 29 games remaining. If Wieters plays in all of those games and 10 playoff games, he will have appeared in 141 games and, assuming a similar rate of catching to DH appearances, he will have caught about 100 games. In college, Wieters played a spring college season, summer league season and then a all practice season, and while the grind of professional baseball is a different beast entirely, that experience should prepare him to play 140+ games in his first professional season. However, the Orioles are right to be cautious with their investment; players of Wieters’ size (6’5”, 230 lb) are rarely catchers because of the strain catching takes on their bodies. The last thing the Orioles want is for Wieters to develop injury issues because of overuse in the minor leagues and during a September call-up.

Still, nothing says that Wieters has to catch every day if he’s called up. Kevin Millar holds no place in the Orioles future plans and he could easily give up at-bats to allow Wieters to DH while Aubrey Huff plays first base. Ramon Hernandez, if he’s not traded in August, can’t play every day, and Wieters could catch once or twice a week, perhaps to help develop a rapport with Jeremy Guthrie and Daniel Cabrera. Fifty Major League at-bats could be a valuable development tool, especially if it forces Wieters to deal with failure for the first time in his baseball career. However, my guess is that the Baysox will make the playoffs, adding a few more games than anticipated to the load Wieters will bear this year, and the Orioles will use that as a convenient excuse to hold down his service time and allow him to take the rest of September off. Baltimore may have to wait until April to see Wieters in his Orioles uniform.

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