Scottsdale, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies probably thought they were getting a good player with a unique skill set when they acquired Tony Wolters off waivers from the Cleveland Indians last month. But surely the club didn't quite expect the southern California native who had never played above Double-A to do what he's doing this March, thus far slashing .407/.429/.704 over 19 games (27 at-bats) of Cactus League action.
A versatile and talented catcher/middle infielder, Wolters has some traits that certainly play up on a National League roster, as we look ahead to Opening Day. Of course, before we even begin to address Wolters' impact on the Rockies' summer plans, we must qualify that for one decision maker, spring training stats mean very little.
"People talk about the spring and September [to audition players], and I think you can get fooled a little bit by spring, to be honest with you," Rockies manager Walt Weiss conceded about Wolters and others who have impressed the club this month. "I put more stock into September, because you’re playing against Major Leaguers virtually the whole time, and you’re playing in the regular season. It’s just a different stage in the game. But that doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate during spring training. That’s what we have to do."
Don't let that quote throw a wet blanket on championing Tony Wolters, though; Weiss followed it up with a disclaimer that sounds like it pertains specifically to the young super utility player.
"It’s more about, especially with young players, can they control their surroundings," Weiss added. "Are they in control of the game? It’s about being in control of their surroundings."
Wolters has been in control of his surroundings this spring, and not just in the results-oriented sense, despite his good stats. To hear Weiss himself tell it, in fact, Wolters' vision, control, and understanding are some of the most important traits the newcomer has brought to the organization.
"The way he thinks is very advanced, for his age and his experience," Weiss conceded. "He sees the field. He sees the whole field for a young player. It's been impressive."
Like Weiss demanded, Wolters has been taking agency in controlling his game, and thus far, it's worked.
"I’ve just gone day by day, I haven’t looked too much into the future, and I’m not looking too much into the past," Wolters told Purple Row in the Rockies' Arizona clubhouse. "I’m really trying to go day by day, trying to keep a positive attitude, trying to really pick one thing to work on every day."
Picking one thing to work on every day is difficult for a super utility infielder-catcher who is also trying to develop his offensive game, I pointed out. Wolters agreed.
"Yeah, and I’m always working on my defense, but it’s mostly offensive right now, trying to be just free and easy and sticking with my approach up there," he said. "I think it’s more my approach, and relaxing up there. That’s been a key for me, once I get that approach down, and get consistent with that, I think my bat will start coming along and just be more consistent. But I feel 100% different than I have in my entire career."
You ought not take Wolters' limited spring at-bats as a sample size tied to any sort of significance or extrapolation, but when the defensive whiz says he feels "100% different" than he has before, well, that might be something of which to take note. After all, injuries decimated Wolters' last two summers in the Indians' organization, and across his first six pro seasons, he's been just a .258/.335/.349 hitter, never reaching higher than Double-A.
And yet while Wolters is taking his offensive game seriously this spring, Weiss noted that the 23-year-old need not get too far away from the defensive work that has made him legitimately great, even in the minor leagues.
"I'm not too concerned with him at the plate to be honest with you, I think it's a pretty simple approach," Weiss told Purple Row. "He knows the type of offensive player he needs to be. We've had those discussions, and I think he is a kid that is going to find a way to get that done."
Finding a way to get it done is the kind of thing that—wait for it—a grinder can do. Funny how that's exactly the term Wolters used to describe himself.
"I’ll play right field, left field, I don’t care, just wherever they need me," Wolters said. "I’m working on my small game, hit and runs. I’ve been working on that in BP and I’m trying to make it play in the game, and one thing is bunting, I’m really trying to work on bunting for base hits. Basically, just being a rat out there."
"I’m a grinder. I'm just trying to keep it going, refine my whole game, and slow it down," Wolters added, getting visibly more excited thinking about what's ahead of him. "I’m here as a catcher for all the pitchers, and I’m just very excited about the opportunity. But I need to keep going, and I need to keep getting better."
Mike Tauchman, Wolters' teammate this spring in the Rockies' clubhouse, faced off against the super utility player last summer as a member of the New Britain Rock Cats, when Wolters was with Akron, in the Eastern League. Now up close, Tauchman is impressed with Wolters' approach to improve his offensive game.
"When we get in the cages together, we talk a lot of hitting," Tauchman told Purple Row. "I think he has that sponge personality where he wants to learn as much as he can about everything. And it shows, because he’s so prepared everywhere. It's a pretty unique skill set. Not everybody has that."
That skill set, of course, is Wolters' ability to play everywhere. But it's not just that the Rockies can stick him at any position, as they've tried to do somewhat recently with Rafael Ynoa; it's more that Wolters is at the top of the curve defensively as a catcher and in the middle infield—and from there, the sky is the limit for him defensively.
"He's an interesting kid, with a very unique skill set," Weiss noted, echoing Tauchman's exact sentiment and word choice. "I've seen middle infielders that have moved to catcher, but they are catchers from that point on. Tony is a guy..."
Weiss trailed off, trying to think of the words.
"I'm trying to think of another guy that still can do both equally as well," Weiss said, shaking his head. "He's a very good middle infielder. It's a very interesting skill set. He's made a great impression this spring."
That impression idea isn't just a one-way street, though. After running into a wall with the Indians, Wolters made the most of his fresh start with Colorado, and the young athlete hasn't lost sight of what this means for his career.
"It’s a fresh start," Wolters said, much more relaxed in the clubhouse than when we spoke with him at the very start of spring training. "Everyone is so helpful around here. They’re not pushy. I get my work done, and people will tell me little things here and there. I’m working on my bunting, I’m working on third base, I want to start practicing the outfield. I want to start doing all that just to refine my game, get a better opportunity, and do whatever I can to help the ball club."
Tauchman, used to seeing Wolters the grinder from the opposing dugout down in Double-A, sounded relieved that the high-energy utility man is wearing purple this spring.
"Playing against him with Akron last year, I remember seeing him in the lineup at shortstop, and it’s like, didn’t this kid catch the other day?" Tauchman asked rhetorically, chuckling. "It’s pretty unbelievable that he can make that transition as seamlessly as he does. He’s a really high energy guy, and for him to be in that role, he needs to be. He’s here early every day, he gets his stuff done, and you can tell he loves baseball."
The only thing left to hash out over the final week of spring training, then, is to figure out where Wolters will be come Opening Day. Ask him, and you find the utility man is certain about where he wants to play: everywhere.
"I want to make the team but beyond that, I don’t care where I play," Wolters said. "If you need me at second, I’ll play second. Short, I’ll play short. I don’t care. It’s whatever they need. I’m trying to work at each position, and I’m trying to be the best at each position. I don’t want to just be put in there and do alright. I want to be the best, and I want to do my job every time."
"I want to help a ball club win, because that’s the main goal, winning," Wolters added, getting on a roll about his goals. "All you need to do is get runs, that should be the focus, just get runs over the plate. That’s my main goal is just to get myself on base. I don’t care, a walk, a hit by pitch, just get on base. That’s my number one goal, just get on base. I need to consistently do that over a long period of time and that’s going to help me."
Got the angle yet?
"I just need to stay straight, not have a lot of voices in my head, keep it simple, and get on base," Wolters repeated. "Just get on base. That’s my job. Get on base, catch the ball in the field, and keep it simple."
Sounds pretty simple, indeed—and it's a set of goals Wolters has thus far accomplished exceedingly well this spring. If he keeps it up, whether for Opening Day or soon thereafter, he'll force the Rockies' hand by making his versatility, energy, and competitiveness impossible to ignore.
From there, the only thing left to consider might be Wolters' official hashtag.