On July 30, 2011, the day before the trade deadline that year, the Nationals and Diamondbacks completed a trade that was, at most, moderate in importance. The Nationals shipped right-handed starter Jason Marquis and his remaining $2.3-million salary to the Diamondbacks for a Class A infielder named Zach Walters with an .862 OPS at the time.
Three years later, that minor leaguer the Nationals acquired was used to pry Asdrubal Cabrera away from the Indians for their pennant race. The Indians so coveted 24-year-old Walters and his potential that they are paying the rest of Cabrera’s 2014 salary, roughly $3 million. In return, the Nationals received a switch-hitting veteran infielder they hope can man second base daily and provide insurance across the rest of the infield.
“It was tough letting a talented young player like Zach Walters go,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Thursday afternoon. “We felt like it was worth the risk.”
In the Nationals minor leagues, Walters developed into a legitimate prospect. He reached Class AAA Syracuse in 2012 at 22. During big league camp that year, he caught then-Manager Davey Johnson’s eye. Johnson challenged him to use his strength more and Walters then hit 29 home runs with a .803 OPS in 2013 at Syracuse. He also earned a September call-up.
But Walters had room for improvement. He struck out 134 times and had a .286 on-base percentage in 2013. He is a gifted athlete but made 31 errors in 104 games at shortstop, his natural position, and seven in 27 games at third base in 2013. He cut down on his strikeouts and errors this season at Syracuse. He played less shortstop and as much second base as third base, and even left field for a handful of games. He hit .205 with a .741 OPS in 43 big league plate appearances this season, including a big pinch-hit home run.
“I think Zach has certainly a really high ceiling,” Williams said. “Power from both sides. The ability to play all three infield positions now with him playing a lot of second base this summer. More of a true shortstop than anything else. I see him potentially as a corner guy because of his power. Certainly it’s special if it’s power from both sides and he can play shortstop.
“They were very interested in Zach. That speaks highly of their thoughts in him and his potential future. I like him. I like Zach a lot. He works hard. He’s willing to do whatever the team asks him to do to improve or to help. I told him today to look at this as a compliment, that another team wanted you that badly and hopefully he gets a great chance to play over there.”
But the Nationals’ window to win a championship won’t be open forever. Much of their core will be free agents over the next two years. With this trade, the Nationals operated like a contending team. Walters has potential, but limitations. Cabrera does, too, but has more of a track record, two all-star game selections and a slick glove. He gives the Nationals more of what they need to win now.
When Walters was at the stadium, Williams called him into the manager’s office. At first, Walters thought he was in trouble. Williams reassured it wasn’t that but delivered career-altering news. According to Williams, Walters was stunned.
“It’s a shock because you don’t know what to do,” Williams said. “You don’t know who to call or who to talk to or when you need to leave or what you need to do or where they’re at because you never think about that. But he’s prepared to go out there and play as well as he can and help them win. It’s the reality of the business of baseball sometimes. You care for people. I would like to see him do well. He’s got big potential.”
It was the first time Williams, in his first year as a manager, told a player he had been dealt. He described it as “not easy.” The big league coaches had gotten to know Walters over several big league spring trainings and during his stints in the majors this season and last.
“We expressed support for him and told him we’re behind him and want him to do well except for the time we play against him,” Williams said.
Under Rizzo’s tenure, the Nationals have shown an ability to make even seemingly small to moderate trades matter. How about the July 30, 2010, trade of Cristian Guzman to the Rangers? That one yielded Tanner Roark. How about the January 2013 trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle? That produced Blake Treinen, A.J. Cole and player to be named later Ian Krol. The trade that brought Walters to the Nationals fits the same mold.
“We [acquired] him as a young, A-ball player that was kind of unproven,” Rizzo said. “But our scouts recognized something in him. He’s a player that has some tools and some athleticism and has shown power from both sides of the plate.
“If there’s one thing we’ve shown here, it’s that there’s no small trade. All the trades are important to us. They can be characterized at the time you make them as a small deal. Sometimes, small deals turn into gold.”
FROM THE POST
Nationals acquire Indians infielder Asdrubal Cabrera for Zach Walters, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 4, Syracuse 2: Taylor Hill allowed one run on four hits over five innings. Warner Madrigal gave up two runs on three hits over 1 1/3 innings. Eury Perez went 3 for 4 with a home run and scored two runs. Steven Souza Jr. was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Brandon Laird went 2 for 4 and is hitting .318.
Harrisburg 10, Akron 9: James Simmons allowed six runs on seven hits. Paul Demny gave up three runs to blow the save but Derek Self earned the win with a scoreless 10th inning. Quincy Latimore hit a walkoff home run. Michael A. Taylor went 2 for 4 and hit his 22nd homer of the season.
Hagerstown 1, Charleston 0: Lucas Giolito fired six scoreless innings, struck out six, walked one and gave up only two hits. Wander Suero earned a three-inning save and allowed only one hit. Spencer Kieboom drove in the lone run. Wilmer Difo went 2 for 4.
Auburn 14, Brooklyn 3: Austen Williams gave up three runs over five innings. Chase McDowell and Luis Torres combined for four scoreless innings of relief. Jose Marmolejos-Diaz drove in four runs. Jeff Gardner hit his second home run and drove in three runs. Bryan Mejia collected three hits. Raudy Reed had two hits.