Gorman: Pirates paying now for Wieters
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Sitting in the visitors' dugout at PNC Park, former Pirates manager John Russell casually slipped Matt Wieters and phenomenal in the same sentence before anyone even asked about the Baltimore backstop.
"If he's not the best catcher in the American League, he's one of the best," said Russell, the Orioles' third base coach and catching instructor. "For a young guy, he's got a phenomenal head on his shoulders, as far as game-planning. He studies. He watches film. He knows our pitching staff. He works very hard. He throws well. He does all the things you want out of a starting catcher. The way he handles the game, for a young catcher, is phenomenal. He's a sponge. You show him how to do something once, and he remembers and retains.
"It's been a pleasure. To watch him catch every day, you see things and just shake your head. Guys watch Matt Wieters play and say, 'That would be nice to have.'"
We've been saying as much in Pittsburgh since June 2007, when the Pirates infamously passed on Wieters with the No. 4 overall pick. Instead of taking Baseball America's top position player, they selected left-handed reliever Daniel Moskos , rated the draft's fifth-best pitcher and eighth-best prospect who's now in their bullpen.
(In a small measure of revenge for being infinitely linked to Wieters, Moskos forced him to fly out to deep center to end the sixth inning Monday.)
It was bad enough when the Pirates didn't want to pay the asking price to do business with agent Scott Boras, who got Wieters a $6 million signing bonus. When you take into consideration what has since transpired behind the plate for the Pirates, it would have been a bargain.
Neil Walker, a 2004 first-round pick as a catcher, was moved to third later that summer. The Pirates drafted another catcher, Tony Sanchez, in the first round in 2009.
They are paying a combined $11 million to Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, a pair of average-at-best catchers now on the disabled list. With Jason Jaramillo also on the shelf and Dusty Brown overmatched, they were forced to trade for minor league catcher Michael McKenry on June 12.
The Pirates could have avoided it all by drafting Wieters, whom Baltimore closer Kevin Gregg calls "the kind of guy that you definitely build around."
Instead, the Pirates played it cheap and are paying for that sin, a reason why they're saying penance instead of playing for pennants.
"Coming out of college, it was always about trying to get worth for what I felt my value was," Wieters said. "If Pittsburgh was able to meet the value that I thought that I had produced in college, then I don't think signability would have been an issue. ... I'm sure the people who made the decisions back then are going to stick by their guns."
Actually, the smoking guns are gone.
Dave Littlefield and Ed Creech, the general manager and scouting director at the time, have been replaced by Neal Huntington and Greg Smith. The bottom-line budget moves have been replaced by an aggressive attitude toward drafting and signing elite prospects, including Boras clients Pedro Alvarez in 2008 and Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell earlier this month.
While Wieters takes no pride in being the turning point for that strategic shift, you can't help but wonder how he would look as the backstop in the Bucs' black and gold instead of Baltimore's black and orange. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle even allowed the thought to cross his mind.
"That's a good-looking guy," Hurdle said of Wieters.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound switch hitter entered last night's interleague game batting .263 with six home runs and 31 RBI, pedestrian numbers for someone once compared with Twins catcher Joe Mauer but powerful enough to put Wieters into the middle of the Pirates' lineup in permanent marker.
Maybe that's why Russell wore a wry smile while talking about Wieters. In his new position, Russell works with Wieters on a daily basis and marvels at his ability to block the ball, protect the plate and call a flawless game.
Not only does Wieters lead all major league catchers in fielding percentage (.998) and runners caught stealing (18 in 45 chances), he's also the only American League catcher with 50 or more starts not charged with a passed ball this season.
"Whatever you have heard about him, you haven't heard enough," Gregg said. "He's unbelievable: a student of the game, very knowledgeable. He helps all the pitchers, understands how the game should be played and is played, sets the tone for pitchers. It's very comfortable when he's back there.
"The Orioles are lucky to have him."
The Pirates are unlucky to not, paying the price for failing to pay his price.
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