It’s hard to fight the feeling that we’ve seen this before.
Not necessarily Adley Rutschman, whom the Orioles took Monday night with the first overall pick in the MLB First-Year Player Draft, but the Adley Rutschman type. The catcher who hits for average and power. And who does it from both sides of the plate. And who is a defensive ace who throws runners out with ease. And who is a can’t-miss prospect with the ability to change a team’s fortunes overnight.
We’ve been hearing all of that about Rutschman. And 12 years ago, we heard the same things - almost verbatim - about Matt Wieters.
This isn’t an article saying Adley Rutschman is going to be Matt Wieters. But it’s hard to hear the former and not think of the latter. Both came from vaunted collegiate programs. Both were offensive and defensive forces. Both were considered major league ready, or close to it, while still on their college campuses.
True, Rutschman was No. 1 overall while Wieters went fifth, but the buzz surrounding Wieters was that of a top pick. Soon after he joined the Orioles’ system, the hype surged to life. Fans heard monikers like “switch-hitting Jesus” and “Mauer with power,” saw a Sports Illustrated cover with his image and the headline “The Perfect Catch” on top of it, and read humorous “Matt Wieters Facts” that suggested nothing short of Roy Hobbs in catcher’s gear was coming to Camden Yards.
No, they didn’t get that. And it would be unfair to punish Wieters for not becoming that. But did they get a player worthy of the place he was taken? Was Wieters a bust, a disappointment, a star, or somewhere in between? And did the Orioles hit or miss on the pick that landed him?
The fans answering this question with “bust” are the first ones out. While in Baltimore, Wieters was a multi-time All-Star and deservedly so. Defensively, Wieters was fantastic, and as good early in his career as anyone in the game. He threw in the mid-90s as a closer at Georgia Tech and translated that arm strength into a weapon against base stealers, throwing seeds that tailed perfectly to the base each time.
He didn’t throw runners out as often as Yadier Molina, widely considered the best defensive catcher of the era, but Wieters also was a terrific fielder, who knew how to use his 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame to his advantage when blocking the plate. Runners charging into home could never seem to dislodge the ball, and Wieters was great at playing the throw no matter where it came in.
A “bust” would be a player who didn’t belong in the major leagues. Wieters clearly belonged.
But while Wieters was an All-Star, he wasn’t a true star player. He was one of the best in the AL at a consistently thin position, but the bat he brought with him wasn’t what was promised - or even hinted at. He had some power; he cleared 20 home runs three times in his first four full seasons, and could drive the ball to all parts of the field.
But he never became the fearsome presence at the plate the reports promised he’d become. He seemed on his way, posting a .288 average in his rookie season, and coming to life in the second half of his first year in the majors. But he slumped to .249 by his second year, never hit higher than .267, and never reached an .800 OPS.
Well, save for one abbreviated season - and for people taking the stance that the Orioles aced the Wieters selection, that’s the fulcrum of their argument. The season was 2014, and it looked like Wieters, at 27, was cashing in on the potential everyone had been raving about. He was batting .308 with an .839 OPS and five home runs through 26 games, when he and the team got a punch to the gut.
Wieters needed Tommy John surgery, and an Orioles team that would make it all the way to the ALCS lost an All-Star catcher in the midst of perhaps a breakthrough season. Wieters was done for the year, and the next year, he slashed .267/.422/.742 in only 75 games. The next year, he was an All-Star with a .243 average and .711 OPS. The year after that, he was a Washington National.
Did the Tommy John surgery derail a leap Wieters was about to make, and instead pose a setback he never recovered from? Or did it just delay another second-half comedown that would have seen him fall back into the .250s with low-20 home run pop?
All the evidence points to the latter, and because of it, it should be argued that the Wieters era was a disappointment - partly due to factors outside of his control (i.e., the outrageous hype), but also due to the weight that comes with any top-5 selection. Wieters was a good player with the Orioles, and had he been the 35th overall pick, he would have been an ideal get with that selection.
But every top-5 pick faces the demands of becoming a franchise player. Just like drafting a good run-stuffing end isn’t enough reward for a first-round pick in the NFL or getting a defensive-oriented sixth man is a lackluster top-3 pick in the NBA, landing a good defensive catcher with occasional pop wasn’t the right haul from a fifth overall pick - particularly for a team then in desperate need of a superstar anchor.
The right pick at No. 5 has to be a Cy Young or MVP candidate. Wieters never became the hitter to make that a possibility.
Wieters’s legacy in Baltimore shouldn’t be that of a wasted pick or a bust, but it should be as a player who never quite met the expectations, both fair and unfair. Now, a similar pressure will fall on Rutschman. If he becomes the next Matt Wieters, the Orioles will have a bona fide major league catcher for the next several years.
Which, normally, is fine. But the Orioles, just as they were in 2007, are looking for even more.