The Indians have a problem in the upper-middle minor league levels that they have yet to fully address. With Jason Kipnis under control through 2017, the Indians have little need for another top level second baseman, but they have a plethora available. From Carolina to Columbus, the Indians have no less than nine Major League quality prospects that could play short stop or second base. Of course, one of these is 2012 first round draft pick, Francisco Lindor, who is the heir apparent for Asdrubal Cabrera (who is expected to depart from the Indians either during this off-season or the next).
This means the Indians have eight high quality prospects with no possible fit at the major league level for the next four seasons. While their are risks in projecting the future that far ahead, some of these players will obviously either be stuck as career minor leaguers or will be traded in the near future. Knowing this time is coming (and soon), the Indians took one short stop and turned him into a catcher prior to the 2013 minor league season. That short stop was Tony Wolters and that experiment may be failing.
Wolters was set to advance to AA Akron in the past season, but was kept back in Carolina to get used to the new position. This was essentially the Indians admitting that Lindor would not only be a higher ceiling player than Wolters, but would be ready to play in the Major Leagues sooner. Rather than give up on a top prospect, they converted Wolters to back-stop, where his offense could still help the team in a position that gave him a chance at advancement. Like Victor Martinez before him, Wolters was willing to give up his original position in an effort to become a Major League star.
He didn't look like a catcher as a thin, speedy infielder, but Wolters jumped into the role 100% and only played two games in the infield for the Mudcats in 2013 (along with 20 at DH). In 58 games Wolters committed just three errors, good for a fielding percent of .993 (only three Indians catchers have had a higher career fielding percent). While he was good fielding the ball, he was not quite as proficient in his other catching duties. In addition to six passed balls, Wolters struggled throwing out runners, finding out that he had the much easier part of the role when he was playing second or short. The opposing Carolina League teams knew he was a newly transformed catcher and took advantage, attempting 1.5 steals per game. Wolters proved them right, allowing the runners to reach safely 72% of the time.
Offensively, Wolters struggled as well as he was likely concentrating all his efforts in learning the most complicated position on the field. As catcher, you not only need quick reflexes to field bunts and balls in the dirt, but need to learn how to call a game as well. With the added responsibility, he saw his slugging percent drop to a career low .353 and his base running game was essentially eliminated. In the short season in 2011, Wolters stole 19 bases and was caught four times in 69 games, but since then he has only stolen eight in 23 attempts in 205 games.
The question now is should the Indians go all in with Wolters at catcher or bail now when he still has a chance to resurrect his career. While there have been many successful positional changes (including Kipnis, who was originally an outfielder), the hardest to make is to catcher. Even Martinez, who was an infielder prior to being signed in 1999 struggled with the change despite having five years in the minors to hone his skills. Even now after another decade, he has been relegated to DH as first the Indians, then the Tigers learned that he couldn't handle his duties behind the plate.
While a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he was the Surprise Saguaros fourth string catcher, could have boosted him up a level, that simply didn't happen. Wolters hit just a single extra base hit as one of the worst batters on the team, ending with a line of .178/.345/.200. Between his struggles and the Rangers Jorge Alfaro ripping the cover off the ball on a consistent basis, it was difficult for Wolters to get regular at bats, but hopefully, he got a lot of useful experience as a bullpen catcher. Instead of showing the Indians he was ready for the next level, Wolters likely earned himself another turn with the Mudcats.
Despite any negative feelings the Indians have about Wolters future behind the plate, it may be too late to move him again. At 21 years old still at the Advanced A level of the minors, another set back could doom him into becoming a career minor leaguer. While he may have made excellent trade bait as a three tool middle infielder prior to the 2013 season, it is unlikely that there are many suitors for just another young catcher who can't hit. The best answer for now is to stick with the move and hope that they won't regret it in ten years, one way or another.
The important thing right now is to get his bat back, the most important part of his game, and the best way to do that is to let him settle in at one position instead of moving him around constantly. If he can get back to being a .300 hitter who could hit an occasional home run, he would at least be valuable as a utility infielder or DH at the AAA or Major League level, especially since he could be used occasionally at short stop, second base and catcher. It is likely that most of his struggles right now are mental and if he can work through them, he could still be a Major League candidate, but the Indians will have to leave him alone for now as he gets used to his new identity.
Wolters batted just .111 last Spring against Major League pitching,
but scored all three times he reached base.