Going into the 2016 season, the catching depth for the Indians is pretty thin. They’re lucky enough to have two outstanding catchers at the major league level in Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Behind the pair though, there are no viable options at Triple-A Columbus. The next player to be on the depth charts behind these two would be converted catcher Tony Wolters, but last season wasn’t very good to him.
Wolters, 23, was signed by the Indians in August of 2010. He was initially brought to the club as an infielder who had decent on-base abilities, along with solid defense. With the rise of Jason Kipnis, and infielder Joey Wendle ahead of Wolters in the depth chart, the Indians approached him about converting to a catcher due to their lack of depth in that position. In 2013, Wolters appeared in 58 games at catcher, and since then has been the primary catcher for the Double-A RubberDucks.
After working with Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. in spring training, it looked like Wolters was on his way to becoming a catching option for the future. After Gomes worked his way into becoming the primary catcher for the Indians, with Perez as a solid backup, Wolters didn’t have any pressure to rush through the minors and could take his time perfecting the craft of catching.
Taking all the time he’s needed is exactly what Wolters is doing.
He’s always been glorified for his defense and he’s gotten stronger defensively as a catcher as well. This is part of the reason why Wolters was a top prospect for so long. After 2014 though, Wolters started to lose some stock in the Indians farm system. In 2014, he saw his BB/9% drop from 11.1 in 2013 to 9.0, while his K/9% rose from 11.1 to 19.1. His batting average took a slight dip, and his OBP followed as well. Wolters has struggled mightily at the Double-A level as far as offense goes.
Wolters is currently taking up a spot on the 40-man roster, so there was hope that he could rebound in 2015 after having a down season the previous year.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Just as it was in the previous year, Wolters continued to spiral downward at the plate. His BB/9 continued to drop and he ended up with a BB/9 of 7.7%. While his K/9 continued to rise, and it spiked all the way up to 23.2%. His OBP dropped to .290, and his batting average took a nose dive all the way to .209. His season was then cut short after suffering a right knee injury, tearing his right meniscus on June 30th.
With such little depth behind Perez, the Indians had been hoping to see more production from Wolters at the plate. Luckily, Wolters is only 23 years old, so he’s still young enough to develop into a productive player at the plate, but if he continues to decline, the Indians will need to start looking for more depth to protect their catchers.
Wolters hasn’t dropped off defensively, a concern going forward when he first started the position. Going from an infielder to a catcher is no easy task. Wolters looks as if he’s always been a catcher though. He makes it look easy. Now to say that his focus on catching has been distracting him at the plate is probably not true, but I’m sure that it could factor in there. Ever since he’s taken on full-time catching duties, his offense has declined each year. Regardless, Wolters will continue to take on the everyday catching duties.
When the Indians acquired Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis this winter, there was a chance that Wolters may have been removed from the 40-man roster to create space for the two veterans. The fact that the Indians would rather cut Chris Johnson and pay him to play somewhere else, along with a guy they had traded for previously this winter, in order to keep Wolters shows commitment. They’re willing to take hits to their payroll in order to keep Wolters. They must believe that the last two years have been a fluke, and that he’ll be able to turn it around in 2016.
Since he is young, he’ll get the chance to improve, but the clock is still ticking. All it’s going to take is one injury to either Gomes or Perez to show that the Indians could be in trouble in the catching department going forward. It’s critical that Wolters starts to improve at the plate, or else someone else is going to show up and take his spot on the roster. Improving plate discipline and returning to form is key for Wolters going forward.
Photo: David Monseur/MiLB.com