Walden expecting to light-up radar guns again

 CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Believe it or not, Jordan Walden thinks he can make the radar guns go higher.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher created quite a buzz last season when his fastball was clocked at 100 mph in the last game of the Rookie-level Pioneer League's championship series. Walden struck out 10 in eight innings that day and his Orem Owlz claimed the PL title.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander from Mansfield, Texas, hasn't approached triple-digit velocity thus far in the low Class A Midwest League. His heater has regularly sat around 93 mph and has gotten as high as 96.

But as the weather finally warms up around these parts after a particularly cold spring and his arm strength increases, Walden — who Baseball America listed as the Los Angeles Angels' No. 3 prospect entering the season - thinks reaching a pitcher's holy grail is again quite possible. So is surpassing that coveted 100 mark.

"Yeah, (100 miles per hour) was kind of shocking to hear, but I've always been a hard thrower," said Walden, who idolized fellow Texan Josh Beckett growing up. "It was just one of those games. A lot of adrenalin, my arm was feeling really good. I'm trying to get to 101 this year. We'll see later on in the season when I get my arm back in shape and I'm throwing good."

It's not like he has thrown badly for the Kernels.

His win-loss record has been sabotaged by a struggling Cedar Rapids offense that has produced two or fewer runs in six of his first nine starts. He has been outdueled twice in low-scoring games by Clinton's Neftali Feliz, a hard-throwing Dominican righthander acquired from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade who is one of the Rangers' top prospects.

Walden's other numbers look fine. His earned run average was 2.56 and he had limited opponents to 42 hits in 52.2 innings for a .213 opponent batting average. He had a 41-15 K-BB ratio.

Rising Stock

No, he's not a finished product. There's work to be done on his slider and changeup, and he needs to be more consistent with the command of his fastball. But, yes, there's certainly a lot there to like.

"I mean, my record doesn't show it, but I feel I've had quite a bit of quality starts," said Walden, 20. "So far, I'd say I've thrown the ball all right. I wouldn't say I've done that good. I'm working on a lot of things right now, so it's hard to say. I haven't really gotten it going, yet. I haven't gone out there and had everything I have."

"We're happy with his progress," said Angels General Manager Tony Reagins. "He's a big, strong power arm. He's commanding the baseball, which is important, especially at this level. You want to go out and throw strikes, and he's doing that. He's pitching deep into games."

Walden was the nation's No. 1 prep prospect and considered a certain high-round draft pick entering his senior year in high school in 2006, but fell to the 12th round because of a drop in his velocity toward the end of his prep season as well as his strong commitment to the University of Texas. The Angels realized the velocity problem was caused by a groin injury, drafted him and coaxed him to pitch for a year at Grayson County Community College in Texas, a school that also produced Angels ace John Lackey.

Walden signed for $1 million in May 2007 as part of the final draft-and-follows class. He went 1-1 with a 3.08 ERA last season for Orem, holding opponents to a .209 batting average.

He entered the season as part of a highly regarded Kernels starting rotation that included lefthanders Trevor Reckling and Robert Fish and righthander Mason Tobin, but those three have all faced issues of their own in 2008. Reckling and Tobin both started the season strong but have since gone on the disabled list, and Fish struggled to the tune of a 5.50 ERA through his first ten starts.

Lefty Michael Anton, the Angels' 2007 12th round pick, is the fifth member of the rotation and has thrown better than any of the other four, with a 6-2 record and an ERA under 2.00 after his first nine starts.

"My last game in high school, I was throwing like upper 80s," Walden said. "I just kept pitching with the injury. I didn't go to the doctor until after the season was over. It bothered me a lot, actually. I know it probably hurt me in the draft. But after it was all said and done, college wasn't that bad of a decision. Going to a junior college, I couldn't really go wrong. I went there to get healthy and pitch healthy, which I did. It worked out good."

"He's been solid," said Kernels Manager Keith Johnson. "The biggest thing for us is to try and make sure he gets through the year with a healthy arm and a healthy body and develops, in terms of being able to pitch and locate his fastball and stuff like that. He's on schedule right now."

Learning From The Best

Walden even got the opportunity to attend big league camp briefly this spring, just kind of sitting back and trying to soak in the atmosphere and instruction.

The Angels plan on him permanently being in big league camp before too long.

"We just wanted him to come in so we could see what he's all about," Reagins said. "We didn't really want him to get too much game action. We just wanted to get him around the major league staff and kind of work on some things and basically show what he has. It's an impressive arm, and we're keeping our eyes on him."

Just like everyone else is keeping their eyes on him to see if he's got any more of those 100 mph fastballs left in that talented right arm.

"It's very possible," Kernels pitching coach Brandon Emanuel said. "Right now, you're looking at guys coming out of spring training. Until they get to midseason form, you don't know. They hit little dead spots in the road. But, shoot, right now he's been up to 96. He sits around 93 or 94, which is plenty."

Jeff Johnson covers the Kernels for the Cedar Rapids Gazette