Rarely do players successfully transition to more difficult positions, but the Cleveland Indians believe second base prospect Tony Wolters can be the next infielder to be successful converted into a catcher. It’s common for a player to move to a less valuable position when his abilities fall short of major league competency, but occasionally a player will increase his value by moving to a more demanding position. At Florida State University, Buster Posey played third base before permanently moving to catcher. Philadelphia’s backstop Carlos Ruiz was a second baseman before making the switch. Like Posey and Ruiz, the Indians believe Wolters can be into an starting catcher on a championship caliber team.
Wolters was selected in the third round of the 2010 Rule 4 draft out of Vista, Calif., and signed for $1.35 million, the equivalent of a mid-to-late first round bonus. He’s a grinder — an intense, hard working scrapper who plays above his tools — with a chatty demeanor that fits perfectly behind the plate. As a hitter, Wolters derives surprising power from his quick hands and aggressive line drive swing. When he starts swinging for the fences he isn’t as short to the ball, but generally he stays within himself with a crisp gap-to-gap approach.
At the end of Spring Training the Indians’ decision makers, including Terry Francona, approached Wolters about changing positions. “They knew I played catcher before in Little League, Pony Ball, and my freshman year of high school,” Wolters told me. “They asked me to catch for a reason, if they really believed I can be special as a catcher, I had to listen. After speaking to my parents and my agent, I accepted the challenge.”
In addition to Wolters, Cleveland has significant middle infield depth, including Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, Luigi Rodriguez, Ronny Rodriguez and Jose Ramirez. However, the Mudcats’ first year manager Dave Wallace was clear the conversion was primarily due to Cleveland’s confidence in Wolters. “More than anything, we thought Tony’s skills and abilities could really play behind the plate, along with his bat,” the lifelong Indian said. “The move should speed up his path to the big leagues too.” Wolters couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Wallace is a gregarious former catcher who spent six of his seven professional seasons in Cleveland’s farm system before beginning his coaching career.
The Indians believe the defensive tools Wolters displayed at second base will allow him to become an impact defensive catcher. During Spring Training, he featured impressive agility at second. “He has soft hands, quick feet and quick transfer,” Wallace noted. When questioned about Wolters’s arm strength, an important tool which was below average in Arizona, Wallace stated, “It’s not about how hard you throw the ball, it’s the stop watch. What’s important is how quickly and how accurately you can get the ball to second. Quickness is a non-factor for Tony, he’ll always be quick and he has the carry on his throws he needs to get the ball there.”
The transition is in its infancy, but Wolters has no regrets. “I’m having fun,” he said. “I want to touch the ball all the time, I love that. I love control.” His training has primarily been contained to catching bullpens, but he did catch Grant Sides in the 8th inning of a blowout loss. In addition to adapting his tools to receiving and blocking Wolters must manage the physical toll catching is taking on his body. “My legs are dead. They are tired and stiff. But, they aren’t affecting my hitting,” he assured me. Wallace chuckled when he heard that. “It’s definitely a grueling experience. His body is going through an adjustment — it’s not easy to work from a squat position day after day.” To prepare for the grind, Wallace asked Wolters to incorporate significantly more stretching into his day, especially of his hip flexors.
No timetable has been set for Wolters to begin catching daily for Carolina, but Wallace and his staff are impressed by how quickly he’s taken to the position. Wolters knows he has more work to do, but when he gets the call, he’ll be ready. “Once I get in there I’m blocking every ball, nothing is getting by me.”