CLEVELAND: When a major league team has a group of young prospects that all play the same position bunched up at the same levels in the minor leagues, it calls for a little creativity to get them all the playing time they need to continue developing.
Last season in an effort to keep their best minor league prospects in the middle of the diamond at High-A Carolina, shortstops Tony Wolters and Ronny Rodriguez flip-flopped between shortstop and second base each game.
When the 2013 season begins in April, the two players will likely follow the same pattern here with the Double-A Aeros.
“With Tony and Ronny, we want to continue to increase their versatility and continue to make sure there are options there,” Tribe farm director Ross Atkins said. “Ultimately what we’re doing is keeping shortstop an option. You take the best athletes and you keep them in the middle of the diamond, and you want them there as long as possible. Neither one of them has dictated that they can’t play shortstop and have continued to make strides. They’ve both also done a good job at second base as well.”
Wolters, the Tribe’s third-round draft pick in 2010 out of California’s Rancho Buena Vista High School, and non-drafted free agent Rodriguez are just two of the Indians young shortstops that have created a logjam at the position in the minors.
In addition to Wolters and Rodriguez, 2011 first-round pick Francisco Lindor, 19, is set to open the 2013 season at Carolina and 18-year old Dorssys Paulino (a 2011 non-drafted free agent out the Dominican Republic) ought to open at Low-Class-A Lake County. The players are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, as the Tribe’s top prospects, according to Baseball America.
The group also includes switch-hitter Jose Ramirez, 20, who batted .354 in 70 games last season between short-season Mahoning Valley and Lake County. Ramirez proved the high average was no fluke, batting a healthy .312 in 38 games in the Dominican Winter League.
A 2009 non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic, the 5-foot-9, 165-pounder will likely be squeezed in somewhere between low and high Class-A, perhaps even in another platoon situation.
The Indians brass didn’t plan the current situation — a plethora of young shortstops all bunched together near the same development levels and in need of everyday playing time. But as far as problems go, it’s a good one to have. It ensures depth for years to come at a premiere position as well as giving the front office potential bargaining chips for future trades.
“Although it wasn’t by design, they’ve all emerged around the same time,” Atkins said. “If you look at the history of baseball players’ move to the corner, they don’t typically move to the middle — unless you’re [Indians second baseman] Jason Kipnis.
“So, if you take a guy with an elite bat who can also stand in the middle of the diamond, he’s probably going to be one of your best players. And when you’re trying to acquire talent as you build a ball club, you’re looking at the center of the diamond for middle infielders first.”
In just two seasons, Rodriguez, 20, has developed into a legitimate prospect for the Indians, who signed him as a non-drafted free agent in 2010 out of the Dominican Republic. With the Mudcats last season, he batted .264 with 20 doubles and four triples and led the team with 19 home runs and 66 RBI.
Baseball America ranks the 6-foot, 170-pound Rodriguez as the Indians eighth best prospect entering the 2013 season.
“With Ronny, you have a supreme athlete that has played very little organized baseball and is already knocking on the door of Double-A and is in major league discussions,” Atkins said. “He already has Arizona Fall League experience, has shown power and a well-above average arm, he has the range and the [foot work]. He has all the attributes it takes to be a middle-of-the-diamond shortstop/second baseman.”
Despite his high draft status, Wolters, 20, was overshadowed last season.
“[Wolters] had a really tough first month and a half, but did a great job of turning his season around after that,” Atkins said.
Wolters rebounded to finish with a .260 batting average — all while learning second base — leading the Carolina League in triples (eight) while tying for eighth in doubles (30) and ninth in runs scored (66).
“I wasn’t surprised [by the move],” he said while in Cleveland recently, taking part in the Indians annual Winter Development Program. “I knew it was going to happen and I accepted it, but I’m still learning second base. At shortstop, everything is in front of you. At second, everything is left to right. The toughest thing for me moving to second was fielding balls on grass — I wasn’t used to that.”