DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Matt Wieters, left, Baltimore's No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft, worked out with Phillip Britton.
Top prospect Wieters in the spotlight for SharksSTORY SUMMARY »
It'll be a week of firsts for Matt Wieters.
The highly touted catcher arrived here on Tuesday in his first visit to the islands. Tomorrow, he gets his first taste of professional ball when Hawaii Winter Baseball opens its season at Hans L'Orange Field.
Wieters is one of four first-round draft picks playing for the Honolulu Sharks as the league begins its seventh season overall and second since being revived.
"Any time you get the best players to come, it's a special league," said Wieters, a former Georgia Tech standout, who earned a $6 million signing bonus when he agreed to terms with the Baltimore Orioles last month. "And it happens to be in Hawaii, so that's another plus."
The Sharks play the Waikiki BeachBoys at 6 p.m. in the second game of tomorrow's season-opening doubleheader at Hans L'Orange. The North Shore Honu and West Oahu CaneFires meet at noon to begin the season.
Eight players who were on HWB rosters a year ago made their major league debuts this season, and the league again features a mix of prospects from major league organizations in the U.S. and Japan.
Joining Wieters as first-rounders who were assigned to the Sharks are outfielder Ryan Harvey (Cubs, No. 5 in 2003), Brandon Snyder (Orioles, No. 13 in 2005) and Daniel Bard (Red Sox, No. 28 in 2006).
"We're going to let them play and enjoy it and improve their talents," Sharks manager Randy Ingle said of his approach to helping groom the players on his club.
"We've talked to the staff members in their organizations, we've got their game plan for what these guys need to accomplish while they're here. I know the organizations want them to get their playing time in and there's a lot invested, so we're going to try to give them an equal amount of time."
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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Top Orioles prospect Matt Wieters makes his pro debut tomorrow with the Honolulu Sharks.
Matt Wieters is sure to sign his share of autographs over his professional baseball career.
None of those signatures will likely be as valuable as when he swiped a pen across a piece of paper last month.
Wieters netted the second-largest signing bonus for a draftee when he agreed to a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, making $6 million for simply writing his name. But for Wieters, now a member of Hawaii Winter Baseball's Honolulu Sharks, the game remains the bottom line.
"I'm still playing baseball," Wieters said yesterday during the Sharks' first practice at Kahala Field. "All of us are now professionals, so we're all just playing for a spot. It's back to playing baseball once we got the business stuff out of the way."
Wieters' late signing means he'll get his first taste of professional baseball when Hawaii Winter Baseball opens the season -- the second since its revival and seventh overall -- tomorrow at Hans L'Orange Field in Waipahu.
The opener between the North Shore Honu and West Oahu CaneFires starts at noon. The Sharks and Waikiki BeachBoys meet at 6 p.m.
Wieters strikes an imposing figure at the plate at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and was considered the top college position player in June's First-Year Player Draft following a prolific college career as a switch-hitting catcher and relief pitcher at Georgia Tech. He hit .359 in three years with the Yellow Jackets, drove in 198 runs and hit 35 homers. He ended his career as a Baseball America first-team All-America pick this season.
The Orioles selected him with the fifth choice in the draft, but negotiations dragged on until he signed just minutes before the Aug. 15 midnight deadline. Otherwise, Wieters might have been back in Atlanta taking classes instead of taking cuts with the Sharks yesterday.
But a deal was struck -- with a bonus second only to the $6.1 million Arizona paid Justin Upton in 2005 -- and the Orioles organization decided to have Wieters make his professional debut in Hawaii rather than rush him into the final few games of the minor league season.
Wieters arrived here Tuesday and is eager to see live pitching again, both behind the plate and in the batter's box.
"I just want to get at-bats, get back into game situations, get back to playing nine innings instead of just taking BP and infield and sitting for a while," said Wieters, who last played in a game on May 26, when Georgia Tech was eliminated from the ACC tournament.
"It's a nice and relaxed league; at the same time it's good competition. You're playing against some of the best players in A ball, so it should be fun. ... Now college ball's done. You put the aluminum away, you get to swinging wood full time and you get to see some of the best arms around."
The adage that catching is the fastest way to the big leagues could be especially true in Wieters' case. Jeff Clement caught for the BeachBoys last year and is now on the Seattle Mariners roster, one of eight 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball players now on major league rosters.
And it might not be long before Wieters adds to HWB's list of big league alumni.
"I think every kid growing up pictures themselves in their living room or their front yard hitting a home run in a major league baseball uniform," Wieters said. "There's millions and millions of kids that want to one day play professional baseball, and I'm just lucky enough to be one of them."
Speaking of millions, what of that big paycheck?
"It's in the bank," he said. "It's in there earning interest for me. I don't really need that much, I need my baseball gear and a couple of things and get back to playing."