It’s never bad to have versatility. It’s something the Indians, like most organizations, look for throughout their system and often can help young players reach the big leagues quicker.
That versatility is probably one of the factors that got Zach Walters to the big leagues and what attracted the Indians to him last summer. However, Walters’ flexibility comes with limits that may hurt chances of making the Tribe’s roster out of spring training, or even raise questions about his place on the field at Triple-A.
Walters was acquired at the July 31, trade deadline last summer when the Indians sent Asdrubal Cabrera to the Washington Nationals. Originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the ninth round of the 2010 First Year Player Draft, Walters was traded to Washington a year later and had progressed through their system primarily as a shortstop. Walters’ development seemed to be near complete in 2013, when he hit 29 home runs in 134 games at Triple-A Syracuse.
The free-swinging Walters, was stuck behind Ian Desmond at shortstop so the Nationals began to move him to other positions, hoping to highlight his athleticsm. First he was shifted to third base, then later to second base and the outfield. What has transpired, is Walters is a below average defender at every position, including his original shortstop position.
Walters’ versatility and power surely what attracted the Indians to him last summer. After seven games at Triple-A Columbus, Walters was recalled to Cleveland when David Murphy and Nick Swisher were placed on the disabled list in early August. Walters provided power, hitting seven home runs in just 94 plate appearances with the Tribe. Despite his ability to play numerous positions, the Tribe played him primarily at the designated hitter position, taking advantage of his power while hiding his defensive shortcomings. His offensive production was part of Cleveland’s strong August that played them back into playoff contention.
But as the Indians begin to assemble their roster for the 2015 season, Walters appears to be caught in the middle between Cleveland and Columbus, and without a true position to play on either roster. With Carlos Santana slated to play first base, the now-healthy Swisher will absorb most of his playing time at designated hitter. Brandon Moss may also need an extra day or two in the designated hitter role, instead of right field, as he comes back from hip surgery. With little time available at the DH spot, Walters will have to use his versatility to make the team out of Goodyear. However, Mike Aviles already is the first option at each back-up infield spot, and the Tribe has a logjam of corner outfielders with Moss, Murphy and Ryan Raburn all veterans looking for roster spots. Walters will likely need an injury to a veteran this spring if he has any hopes of making the big league roster on Opening Day.
Instead, the free-swinging slugger will likely head to Triple-A to try and cut down on his 35.0% strikeout rate he had at the big league level last year. Despite his seven home runs with the Tribe, he only hit .170. Seven of his 15 hits were long balls, drawing easy comparisons to former Tribesman, Russell Branyan. Walters, like Branyan, struggles to hit with any kind of batting average or draw walks to improve his slash line.
But even at Triple-A, finding a position for Walters to play could be a struggle in the beginning. Top prospect Francisco Lindor is slated to open at shortstop, with quick-climbing talent, Giovanny Urshela at third base. Walters will have a tough time playing his two best positions, even with the Clippers. He may find himself battling Carlos Moncrief, James Ramsey and Tyler Holt for time in the outfield, and Michael Martinez for time at second base. Walters has played just 41 games at second base during his minor league career, and only 10 at the corner outfield positions.
That lack of playing time at those positions probably hurts Walters’ chances of being a power threat off the Indians bench, but also as an option of a recall. If a player were to be injured at the big league level, Walters may not be the best defensive option or replacement for the Indians. His best big league position, despite his versatility, could be designated hitter. Walters may just be a big league buffer in 2015, riding the I-71 shuttle, until Lindor or Urshela are big league ready. But without regular time at those positions in Columbus, his defensive liabilities could be exploited even further when called upon. Cleveland already has a list of below average defenders.
Instead, Walters’ versatility will make him an option all the time, but not likely ever the first option.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer