Zach Walters poked a walk-off single through the Cardinals’ infield on Sunday, which is not the first time he gained notice in Nationals spring training. During his first major league camp, Walters made it his goal to blend in, to avoid the ire of veterans in the corner opposite his in the Nationals’ clubhouse. It has not always gone well.
“Werth got on me,” said Walters, who grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Las Vegas. “He didn’t like my neon shoelaces. I got a little flair coming from Vegas. They were blindingly neon green.”
Having changed his laces, Walters has managed to stand out, anyway. With Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa established at the major league level and Anthony Rendon occupying the spot as the Nationals’ top prospect, it is not the best time to be a middle infielder in Washington’s minor league system.
But Walters has given himself a chance to become a major leaguer in the future with his athletic defense alone. He’s had a lot of Grapefruit League playing time, and his range has been one of the more eye-catching things from spring training.
Walters’s defense is ahead of his offense, but he has shown promising signs with the bat. Last year, between Potomac, Harrisburg and Syracuse, Walters hit .266/.302/.418 in his age 22 season. He showed glimpses of power, bashing 12 home runs in total and slugging .518 over his 172 plate appearances at Class AA Harrisburg.
There is reason to believe Walters can improve. Last spring, Walters broke the hamate bone in his hand. He returned quickly, and the injury affected him at the plate. He’s 100 percent healthy now. Both Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein are working with Walters on changing his stance this spring.
“He’s been working out of this spread stance,” Johnson said. “I’d like to see him stand a little taller and use his strength to drive the ball. He’s very young. He knows about roping steers and all that. He needs to corral his ability, but he’s got a really good upside.”
“Rick [Eckstein] has got him standing up a littler taller, instead of spread out, sitting down like he’s riding a bronco,” Johnson added. “Or maybe a Brahma bull or something. But I like his ability.”
It was overlooked at the time, but the trade to bring Walters to the Nationals was pretty much a heist. The Nationals sent Jason Marquis to the Diamondbacks for Walters at the 2011 trade deadline. It seemed like a longshot that the Nationals would get a prospect with a chance to make the majors for Marquis. Not only did they, but the Diamondbacks picked up the entire remaining chunk of Marquis’s contract, about $2.5 million. It was a small trade, but a clear win for the Nationals.
“I really like him,” Johnson said. “He reminds me of kind of a young Desmond. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s a country boy. Strong like Desmond. Great arm like Desmond. He hasn’t quite figured out who he is, but he’s got a big upside. That was a good move.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
The Nationals will face the Astros at 1 p.m. in Viera. There’s no lineup yet. Dan Haren will make his second start and Rafael Soriano is scheduled to make his first relief appearance of the spring.
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY