Wieters working hard to improve his game
Former No. 5 overall pick hoping for breakout season in third year
BALTIMORE -- For Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, last offseason was about proving he could withstand the physical rigors of his first full Major League season. This winter, it's about playing at a higher caliber during that 162-game grind, perhaps bridging the gap between his first year-and-a-half and the astronomical expectations that have surrounded Wieters since he was made the O's first-round pick (No. 5 overall) in 2007.
The 24-year-old, who by his own admission had a disappointing 2010 campaign, has been working out in Sarasota, Fla. -- where he purchased a home at the end of last spring -- and said his focus has been more "offensive-driven" than years past.
"My No. 1 job is to call a good game and get the most I can out of the pitchers," Wieters said in a phone interview, "but I definitely want to help out the team a lot more [at the plate] than I did last year. I feel like I can have a better offensive year than I did last year, [and I've] been working hard to make that happen."
While Wieters said that he has largely put last season -- in which he hit .249 with 11 homers and 55 RBIs in 130 games -- "out of his head," he did acknowledge that last year's struggles were more mental than mechanical.
"Everyone was just kind of trying to find the feeling for [their swing] last year," Wieters said. "Guys were just trying to [much] and couldn't quite find it. Maybe even me. This year, I'm just going to try to be more aggressive and go get it and leave a little more on the field instead of trying to find it and just feeling like I'm almost there but not quite.
"[You feel like] it's just not clicking all the way. And [last year], I couldn't quite get that long hot streak that carries you through a few months."
With a permanent residence in the team's Spring Training city, Wieters has been working on explosive-type exercises in the weight room and alternating running on days he doesn't lift. He's been joined by teammates Jim Johnson and Brian Roberts, a dynamic that has helped the trio get in shape and get excited for the spring.
"It's good to be able to work with guys that I'm going to be playing with," said Wieters, who has spent winters past with old college teammates in the Atlanta area. "We've got a trainer down here that we're working with, and we've been really pushing each other."
As for Roberts, who missed three-quarters of the season with a herniated disc in his lower back, Wieters said the Orioles' second baseman has been working out with no restraints, and he fully expects the team's leadoff man to be ready for the season.
"He's been working, doing everything that we have," Wieters said of Roberts. "He looks to be in good shape. He's a guy we are going to need to be in it this season."
The same holds true for Wieters, who has made solid strides defensively and with his game calling, and has slowly taken on more of a leadership role with the pitching staff. With bench coach Jeff Datz now in Seattle, Wieters will work closely with new third-base coach John Russell, who he met briefly on a trip to Ed Smith Stadium, on handling a young rotation that includes Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.
"It's exciting to me, because I've seen what most of them can do," Wieters said of a fully returning Orioles staff -- sans Kevin Millwood -- that pitched to a 3.16 ERA in the season's final 57 games.
"They have outstanding stuff, and I think at the end of last year, you saw the confidence coming around for them. And you see their ability plays just as well at the Major League level than at the Minor League level. And that's what you need to be successful: starting pitching and playing good defense."
To that end, Wieters is also encouraged by the team's offseason moves, which include infielders Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy and Derrek Lee, a trio of players who will represent a significant offensive upgrade without sacrificing on the defensive front. The Orioles also re-signed the well-liked Cesar Izturis as a backup infielder and have replenished the back of their bullpen by locking up Kevin Gregg for at least two years and re-signing Koji Uehara. The pair will join Johnson and Michael Gonzalez in the later innings.
"It is nice to see the organization being able to make the team better going [in] to spring," Wieters said. "It's still going to be tough, because we are still in the toughest division in baseball ... but we were able to improve our pieces where I feel like we can definitely compete."
With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report, Wieters said he's spoken to manager Buck Showalter a few times this winter, with the mantra "Be ready for Spring Training" ever-present.
While he's predominantly let the pitchers do their own thing this winter, as February nears, Wieters acknowledged it might be time for a friendly reminder.
"It's getting [to be] fast, crank-it-up time," he said. "So I might text them, see how their offseason is going."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.