Angels’ Walden Staying on Even Keel

TEMPE, Ariz. — Spring training isn’t always about sun, palm trees and babes.

No, for some prospects, the days leading up to the end of camp can be downright brutal. That is, if they let their minds wander off and unnecessarily speculate about where they will fit in the grand scheme of things come midseason.

What if so-and-so gets hurt or underperforms in the majors and the next guy on the depth chart stumbles, too? Will that spell a promotion? Is my slider coming around? Do they like me enough? In essence, questions that that add up to what prospects like to call “Playing GM.”

Fortunately for the Angels, they have nothing to worry about when it comes to 21-year-old righthander Jordan Walden losing focus.
“I’m not like that,” Walden was saying Wednesday as he watched the tail end of the Angels’ Class A games against visiting Giants prospects.

“Younger guys all try to play the GM,” Walden later said, with a sheepish grin, by the way. “Once they get around though, they know it’s not in their hands. It’s what you do on the field, really, and how you carry yourself.”

Consider those words, then, a motto that Walden will live by this spring even though it would understandably be tempting here in Angels camp to get caught looking ahead.

Camp ends in 10 days, and the Angels’ big league rotation fueled more questions Wednesday when it was reported that Opening Day starter John Lackey could have to pass on that Opening Day assignment.

Lackey was shut down over concerns about elbow tightness, and that decision comes on the heels of the Angels losing Ervin Santana (sprained elbow ligament) for the season’s first month and also just recently shepherding Kelvim Escobar (shoulder surgery last July) back to the mound in minor league games. His hopeful return is May 1.

In that context, the Angels would likely have a five-man turn of Joe Saunders, Nick Adenhart and Shane Loux, with righthander Anthony Ortega—he was added to the 40-man last year—a possibility on the depth chart, although Ortega has been slowed because of fatigue.

See where this is going?

What if … the Angels’ staff continued down this frightening path through the year? What if … they suddenly found themselves in the drama of a pennant race with the upstart Athletics or Rangers in late August? And what if …  what if … Walden, a draft-and-follow that signed for $1 million in 2007 after a junior college season, is plowing through the minors? He’s certainly got the body of a power arm—6-foot-5 and 220 pounds.

First, of course, Walden, their big Texan with the blazing fastball and suddenly developing slider (plus a nice changeup), must put himself in position for THAT discussion, and the reality is that it’s still a way-down-the-road scenario.

After all, the Angels are still on the fence about where to send him when the curtain rises on this season. He could make a prodigious jump to Double-A Arkansas—the Angels have worked him out in Double-A games—but more time at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga seems more beneficial.

Walden ended last season in the California League, throwing just 49 innings and finishing 5-2, 4.04 with 50 strikeouts and 24 walks. That followed an absolutely dominating tour at low Class A Cedar Rapids, where he struck out 91 in 107 innings.

“More than anything, it’s about harnessing his delivery so he’s more efficient in the strike zone, which is common for tall-framed guys,” Angels farm director Abe Flores said. “We would just like him to have more balance on the rubber.”

Fortunately for Walden, his plan this season is to continue learning and wherever he ends up, great.

Part of his to-do list centers on sharpening the slider, a key pitch that, paired with his changeup, could be a big factor should Walden reach the Texas League.

“I like his slider,” said Kernan Ronan, the Angels’ pitching coordinator. “He’s still feeling a little bit for it. It can be curvy at times, so we’re just tightening it up so that it has a later break.”

Walden is optimistic that the slider will develop quickly, particularly because he hit camp in better shape than a year ago thanks to playing long toss  three times a week in his Texas hometown with Mark Cohoon, a lefthander from North Central Texas JC that the Mets fished out of the 12th round in 2008.

Walden said he did not have anyone to play catch with in the months leading up to last spring training and felt gassed toward the end of last season, his first full year.

“My slider, right now, it’s looking more like a curveball,” Walden said. “I started getting away from it (last year) and started throwing it like a curveball. And it caught up to me. It was OK (in big league camp), but it’s not where it needs to be.”

Ronan is optimistic that Walden will build on the successes of last year and points to the fact the righthander has set out to fully develop his slider and that his changeup is quickly becoming a weapon.

“I saw a lot of really good things,” Ronan said. “But like a lot of young pitchers, I don’t know if he came into camp ready. But he really found his groove about a month into the season.”

So stay tuned.

“I’m ready to get out of spring training and get the season going,” Walden said. “Spring training is just a grind. But it pays off once the season starts.”

Especially if you don’t try to play GM.