At last season’s big-league camp, infielder prospect Zach Walters caught Nationals Manager Davey Johnson’s eye for athleticism and potential. Walters, 23, was invited back again this season and Johnson again took a particular interest in the switching-hitting shortstop. Johnson even compared him to Ian Desmond, in terms of his development.
Johnson had some advice for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound infielder about how to improve his power stroke. And 112 games into his first full season at Class AAA Syracuse, Walter has 26 home runs, second in the International League, and has produced his best power season yet as a prospect. He was twice named hitter of the week in the league and was selected by opposing coaches as an all-star.
“It may have had a little weight when he said that,” Walters said recently, joking about his spring training conversation with Johnson. “I may have took that to heart a little more. He joked about being from Montana and being a farm boy. ‘Gosh dang, a bale of hay, you can swing a bat. Come on, man, don’t try to hit no singles. You’re no singles hitter.’”
Last year, his first full season in the Nationals system, Walters hit only 12 combined homers between Class A Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg to Syracuse. Overall, he hit .266 with a .302 on-base percentage and his slugging percentage was .418. This season, his slugging percentage has jumped to .539, third best in the International League, and smacked 60 extra-base hits. He is hitting .257 with a low on-base percentage of .287. His OPS, however, is .826.
Syracuse hitting coach Troy Gingrich said Walters has worked to balance himself better during his left-handed swing. Early in the season, during April, Walters was leaning too far forward when he swung and was losing power. The two worked on making sure he kept his head back, which forces him to keep his weight split between his front and back side, so that when his bat made contact with the ball he was more able to drive with more power.
“This year he’s got to where he can gather himself and get to a position where he is behind the ball on contact now,’ Gingrich said. “When he’s behind the ball on contact and having the ability to drive the ball both sides of the ball park anywhere, I mean that’s very special and unique. So now when he’s able to stay in position and he can hit the ball where it’s pitched and let the ball travel, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark really easily.”
Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said that Walters is also simply making more contact.
“The main thing is what he hits and what he swings at,” Beasley said. “When he’s pretty zoned on what he likes to hit and what he’s swinging at, he’s producing. He has tremendous power. The ball jumps off his bat on both sides of the plate to all fields. It’s just a matter of him mastering the strike zone and he has gotten much better.”
That is Walters’ biggest area of improvement. He has struck out 109 times in 412 at-bats. He has walked only 14 times. His on-base percentage fell to its lowest of his four-year minor league career when his power numbers went up. Beasley has challenged Walters to cut down on his strikeouts and draw more walks.
“It’s been kind of homework of the week,” Walters said. “Little things I can always improve my weaknesses. That’s one of things where things have gone on. I struck out a ton the first month. Then it was let’s make the swing consistent. Then let’s see how they’re pitching you. Then let’s improve my quality at-bats. Then strike zone. Pitch recognition.”
The Nationals acquired him in 2011 in the Jason Marquis trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s better trades. Rizzo turned a starter who mattered little to them into a prospect, and Arizona ate the remaining $2.3 million of Marquis’ salary.
Walters has turned into a legitimate prospect, or perhaps even a trade chip, if needed. He has played 93 games at shortstop this season and committed 25 errors. But he is also capable of playing second or third base, where he played 18 games this season, most after Danny Espinosa was optioned to Syracuse. Beasley continues to remind Walters to keep his feet active in the field and better position himself in front of the ball. But there is no mistaking the strength of Walters’ infield arm strength, rated the best in the system by Baseball America.
Despite a backlog of middle infielders in the organization, Walters remains a name to watch. If he continues his progress, he could be a candidate for a September call-up.