Nothing middling about Tribe's key infield prospects
Shortstop and second base are loaded positions in Indians' system
CLEVELAND -- When Francisco Lindor wandered through the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field on Monday afternoon, making his way to his temporary locker, a group of reporters quickly surrounded the prospect and peppered him with questions.
Lindor's presence at the Indians' annual Winter Development Program -- an event aimed at acclimating the club's top Minor Leaguers to what the big league life brings -- provided the quick and easy storyline. The Tribe's top position-player prospect and the club's No. 2 prospect overall, according to MLB.com, stood a short walk away from the diamond on which he might someday dazzle.
"We all get the spotlight," Lindor said with a smile. "That's part of our job."
It is understandable that Lindor -- Cleveland's first-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft -- garners most of the attention when it comes to the organization's top prospects. Then again, the 19-year-old shortstop is hardly alone when it comes to emerging infield talent in the Tribe's system.
At virtually every stop on the farm, the Indians boast middle infielders that have the organization excited. Juan Diaz, who debuted in the Majors a year ago, is primed for Triple-A. Tony Wolters (Cleveland's No. 4 prospect) and Ronny Rodriguez (No .6) will likely open next season at Double-A. Lindor is on a path to High Class A Carolina, with Dorssys Paulino (No. 3) and Jose Ramirez (No. 20) in the Class A mix as well.
"It's certainly an area of strength," said Ross Atkins, Indians vice president of player development. "When you look at Juan Diaz, and his ability to play shortstop and the progress he's made, the potential of having Ronny Rodriguez, Tony Wolters, Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino and Jose Ramirez playing at two, three or potentially four levels, that is an unusual situation, and a good problem to have."
One step above Lindor on the organizational ladder last season was a dynamic double-play duo.
At Carolina, Wolters and Rodriguez spent much of the season switching positions in the field and generating plenty of offense at the plate. Each a shortstop by trade, Wolters and Rodriguez were asked to divvy up their starts, jumping between short and second base for much of the year. They will probably face a similar scenario in the coming campaign.
The pair of prospects obliged, forming a strong tandem up the middle.
"Going back and forth with Ronny last year was awesome," Wolters said. "It was a great experience for both of us. What we're trying to get from this is getting better as a player on both sides. It makes us both valuable, and the Indians, they need those guys up the middle."
Wolters -- a third-round selection in the 2010 Draft -- worked 63 games at second and another 61 at shortstop. In the batter's box, the 20-year-old infielder put his versatility on display, hitting .260 with eight home runs, 30 doubles, eight triples, 58 RBIs and 66 runs scored in 125 games for the Mudcats.
His partner up the middle, the 20-year-old Rodriguez, provided some power, launching 19 home runs in 126 games for Carolina. Rodriguez -- signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2010 -- hit .264 and added 20 doubles, four triples, 66 RBIs and 67 runs scored. He spent 80 games at shortstop, but also manned second base in 45 contests.
Below Lindor on the organizational depth chart is 18-year-old shortstop Paulino, who excelled with the Arizona (Rookie League) Indians and Class A (short-season) Mahoning Valley last year. In 56 games between the two levels, Paulino hit .333 with seven homers, 19 doubles, six triples, 11 stolen bases, 38 RBIs and 47 runs.
"What he did offensively in his first full season was remarkable," Atkins said. "I think the most exciting thing about Dorssys is every single baseball person that lays eyes on him, that watches him take batting practice once, says the exact same thing. They say, 'Wow, this guy has a chance to be really special."
Ramirez, who split his season between Mahoning Valley and Class A Lake County, hit .354 with three homers, 15 doubles, four triples, 17 stolen bases, 27 RBIs and 56 runs in 70 games last season.
Lindor did not have time to concern himself with what Wolters or Rodriguez were doing one level higher in the system, or what kind of numbers Paulino was posting in the levels below. His responsibilities consisted of leading Lake County, and living up to the hype that has followed him since Cleveland added him to the fold with the Draft's eighth pick two summers ago.
The highly touted shortstop did not disappoint.
In 122 games for the Captains, Lindor hit .257 with six home runs, 24 doubles, three triples, 27 stolen bases, 42 RBIs and 83 runs scored. That offensive showing was a touch better than predicted for his first full professional season -- an encouraging sign for Cleveland's premier infield prospect. Lindor's solid defense came as advertised, and he quickly embraced a leadership role in Lake County.
It was an overall showing that impressed the Tribe's front office.
"I think he exceeded [expectations]," Atkins said of Lindor. "And the starting point couldn't have been higher, and he still exceeded it, because of his maturity and awareness. You heard all about the maturity, but it's the awareness of his situation, of his challenges, of what limits him, of his own expectations ... and his ability speaks for itself."
The players are excited about what is potentially to come for the entire group of prospects.
"It's a great group of guys," Lindor said. "They're great people. That's the most important thing. They're good teammates and they have passion for the game, and they work hard. They're going to make me better, just like I'm going to make them better."