It was just over six years ago when Matt Wieters made his major league debut.
At the time, the Orioles were in the midst of their 12th straight losing season and in search of a savior. The fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft was deemed by many as the next Johnny Bench or at least Joe Mauer with power, but it never quite worked out that way despite Wieters having a good career before undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.
Six years later, the defending American League East champions may not need a savior, but they sure need a lift after losing five of their last six to fall five games below .500, their worst start since the 2011 season. They hope their three-time All-Star catcher can provide the kind of spark that can help turn their fortunes around.
Of course, expectations should be realistic as Wieters will return to the major leagues for the first time in nearly 13 months Friday night in Cleveland. It remains unclear when he’ll be ready to catch on consecutive days, but the Orioles will take what they can get from the 29-year-old, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the season.
“All feel. It’s going to be a slow process with it,” said Wieters last week about his part-time status as a catcher. “I’ve sort of come to terms with it that it’s not going to come just like that back to catching four, five days in a row. It’s all by feel. Every other day is better than not playing at all for me right now.”
Of course, no one is suggesting that Wieters alone will make the dramatic difference on the field as the emotional lift of his return might be the biggest short-term benefit for an Orioles club desperately trying to regroup. After losing two clubhouse leaders in Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz over the winter, the club will welcome back one of its most respected members with open arms.
Caleb Joseph, the Orioles’ primary catcher over the last year, has played admirably in Wieters’ place from a defensive standpoint and has improved his offense in his second major league season. With the likelihood of Wieters departing via free agency, many view Joseph as an acceptable replacement — at least for a year or two.
For the time being, Joseph will continue to be a major part of what the Orioles do as he and Wieters alternate catching duties.
“He’s done great. I’m real proud of that guy,” Wieters said of his understudy. “To see as far as he’s come defensively is really amazing. He really put the time in and the effort in and really worked to make himself I feel like one of the better defensive catchers in the league.
“That’s saying something for a guy who for a while was thought of as an ‘offensive’ catcher. To really take the time and effort that it takes to making yourself good defensively, a lot of credit goes out to his work ethic.”
As well as Joseph has played, that doesn’t mean he’s as good as a healthy Wieters.
And therein lies the great unknown.
What exactly will the Orioles be getting with the return of the veteran backstop? Will he still provide plus offense at his position and Gold Glove-caliber defense as a part-time starter?
His opposite-field home run for Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday was a good way to conclude a rehab assignment in which he hit .313 with a homer and three RBIs in 19 plate appearances. Perhaps the absence of the wear and tear of catching over the last year will do wonders for his offense, which would be a positive development for a Baltimore offense that’s been horrendous since early May.
The Orioles can’t truly know how this will go, but they’re welcoming the opportunity to find out at this point.
If anything, they hope a change in karma will do them good.
Wieters won’t be a savior, but the Orioles hope he can be a catalyst to help turn around their season.