BALTIMORE — A day after celebrating his 29th birthday, Matt Wieters is scheduled to join the Orioles in Miami for a three-game series against the Marlins.
It figures to be the final test for the three-time All-Star catcher before he’s scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment with Double-A Bowie on Tuesday. And it’s an opportunity for Wieters to finally escape the heat of Sarasota, where he’s spent much of the last 11 months rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
“I think Matt wants to get around [bench coach and catching instructor John Russell] and get around his teammates and get back in that environment,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I think it’s a good progression for him, and I think it’s what Matt wants to do, too. Nobody knows what’s going on with his elbow and everything else more than him.
“I think he needs to get out of the ‘Gulf Roast’ league, too. He’s been a diligent rehab guy, almost to a fault. I think he needs to get out of there physically, mentally, and emotionally. I think it’s a good time for him. Believe me, we’ll do a lot of work in Miami.”
Despite catching in a number of extended spring training games, Wieters has yet to play on consecutive days, leading many to speculate that he will share starting duties with Caleb Joseph upon being activated from the 60-day disabled list next month. Wieters is eligible to return as early as June 4, and that’s the date on which he’s expected to be activated barring any setbacks, according to Showalter.
It was more than two months ago that Wieters caught six innings in a Grapefruit League game on March 17, exactly nine months after undergoing ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery. He was shut down the following day with elbow tendinitis, but Showalter says he didn’t view that as a setback as much as he did a sign for the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft to slow down.
“It was the test to see where he was. I don’t know, who knows?” said Showalter when asked if he wonders where Wieters might be now had they not pushed the elbow so soon. “If anything, it helped us make better decisions to know that he was on more of the 11 [or] 12-month plan than the nine-month [one] that he was hoping. I think he showed a lot of maturity with it. Matt really knows what has to happen for him to be able to contribute here, and I think he kind of used that as a gauge a little bit.
“I look at it as a positive in the long run. I thought it was just part of the progression. In hindsight, it was actually positive that he was able to make a good decision there and not push it along where he would have really had a setback that would have required some other things.”
Of course, the clock is ticking for Wieters as he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season. The Orioles hope to benefit from his return to the lineup, but he needs to prove that he will be the same player despite undergoing a procedure not typical for catchers.
Showalter is confident that Wieters is in excellent shape when it comes to the other aspects of catching that go beyond throwing and estimates that he’s received somewhere between 200 and 300 at-bats since the start of spring training. The jump in competition level will be an initial obstacle, but the Orioles are eager to have the veteran catcher back in whatever capacity he’s ready to handle.
As they have throughout the process, the Orioles will lean on how Wieters says he feels as the biggest gauge when he’s ready to return.
“The one thing he’s in is he’s in really good catching shape,” Showalter said. “He’s been challenged there leg-wise and everything. He’s probably got more at-bats than anybody. It’s just where he is with the elbow.”