Relying On Guts

Cardinals righthander builds case with strong winter

Not long ago, give or take 18 months, any conversation discussing a safe projection of Cardinals righthander P.J. Walters always centered around one phrase: In the majors, he's probably a reliever.

There he stood, overshadowed by better arms and more glistening pedigrees, with Walters' climb having started from the 11th round of the 2006 draft following a respectable stint at South Alabama.

All he owned were a squirrelly change-up and an 85-86 mph fastball that seemed more like one of those rusty, '81 Datsuns that putt-putt-putt along the highway as everybody else zips on by.

Now, after a mostly encouraging run through the high minors in 2008 and a dominating performance in the Puerto Rican League, look who's running with a full head of steam entering a season that could end with a precious 40-man roster spot. Even better, the majors are in reach.

"I think he's going to make it," predicted Cardinals pitching coordinator Dyar Miller. "He knows how to pitch."

When the Cardinals revealed winter ball assignments, front office personnel always went out of its way to highlight that the righthander would be part of the traveling party.

The bigger name, of course, was that of 22-year-old catching prospect Bryan Anderson, who was to shadow Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina on the same Carolina Gigantes club, a team managed by St. Louis third base coach Jose Oquendo.

Now it's debatable on whose winter escapade Molina influenced more. When Walters returned to Alabama just ahead of Christmas, he did so with Molina having handled his final three starts. From the battery came 14 strikeouts and four walks in 20 innings.

An eight-strikeout effort over seven innings stood out, but Walters didn't leave it at that. In his curtain call, he delivered a scoreless 5 1⁄3 innings, yielding only five hits.

Talk about the right way to exit a season. Walters had opened the year by retiring nine consecutive St. Louis batters when the big league club swung through Double-A Springfield on a barnstorming tour, and he then finished the year with more than 195 innings and almost as many strikeouts (194).

At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Walters is proving to be a workhorse, now one influenced by one of the game's best catchers.

"It was a lot of fun (in Puerto Rico)," said Walters, who was 3-3, 4.34 with 38 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 371⁄3  innings. "(Molina) pays attention to the little things and he would tell me to trust my stuff more.

"He plays hard and he gets after it down there, so it was a lot fun having him back there," Walters added. "He makes you feel more comfortable. He knew the scouting report before I had even seen it. When he came up to me, he always had a game plan."

Like a well-spun bowling ball knocking down a wide swath of pins, the Puerto Rico experience touched on the necessary adjustments that the Cardinals hoped to see.

A sometimes rough delivery that tended to carry his arm across his body and impede Walters' command smoothed out and allowed for fastballs to dash across the corners instead of serving as long-ball fodder. A loopy curveball also tightened and showed better spin, giving Walters a third pitch that could help offset the one pitch—the changeup—that he has long been his meal ticket.

The signature changeup, the one that looks somewhat like a screwball and one that he tends to lean on too much, remained in his hip pocket until Molina told him to break it out. It was a mental note that will not be forgotten anytime soon.

"I kind of learned to use all my pitches a little better," Walters said. "It was something where, with the changeup, he said I could throw it here but I didn't have to. I could throw another pitch and it would work out just as well."

It's no wonder, then, the Cardinals are excited about Walters with spring training just around the corner, as his steady climb of the past two seasons now moves him fully in view of the team's radar.

Walters came on strong in 2007 when he reached Double-A in late July as the fill-in for an injured Jaime Garcia and helped fire that team to within two wins of the Texas League title.

This year, he finished 10-6, 4.50 in 29 starts combined in the high minors, 23 of those starts coming while working for Triple-A Memphis.

And it's not that Walters has thrived only on guts and guile. He's a thinker on the mound who challenges himself to work deep into games and pin down leads. He has no time for stats, just wins.

"His velocity actually improved a lot this year," Miller said. "We just wanted to maximize it (with a trip to Puerto Rico). He hit 90 once in a while this year, and we just wanted him to tighten his breaking ball up a little bit. It was too loopy, but we did a few things to make it sharper and quicker."

All of which would scuttle those whispers of a future bullpen role.

Not that Walters would mind it if the big league club had a need.

"I'll pitch wherever they want me to," Walters said. "I do enjoy starting, but I've pitched out of the bullpen before. It wouldn't be anything new. And this could be a big year, and I'd like to keep getting better and help them in a playoff run."

Caribbean Dreams

• It's been almost two years since the Mets released Alay Soler, but the Cuban defector is enjoying a nice time in the Puerto Rican League. Through 51 innings, the righthander was 2-3, 3.88 and is proving to be the ultimate swingman, with two saves as well as 10 starts. He also has struck out 42 against 22 walks and owns a .258 opponents average. Soler did not pitch in 2007 or 2008 in the United States and his claim to fame is snagging a three-year, $2.8 million contract in September 2004 but making only eight starts for the Mets in 2006. He turned 29 in October.

• Since being selected by the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft, former Rays farmhand Eduardo Morlan has been on a tear for Puerto Rico's Caguas club. The righthander is 2-9, 2.16 in 17 innings, and has been stubborn since the week of the winter meetings, yielding only one hit but no runs while registering 12 outs.

• Now that Aaron Miles has signed with the rival Cubs, the Cardinals are in need of an infield utilityman. Expect 29-year-old infielder Joe Thurston to stump for the job in camp after signing a minor league contract in December, and he should be warmed up and ready for camp. Through 130 at-bats in the Puerto Rican League, Thurston was batting .292/.423/.803 with three home runs, six doubles and an equal number (14) of strikeouts and walks for the Carolina club. Thurston also has played second, short, left and center this winter and comes to the Cardinals after getting 66 big league at-bats in five seasons, spending last year with Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox).

• Jason Bourgeois took the long route to reach the majors, spending more than eight seasons in the minors before getting a September call-up by the White Sox last year. Now the Rangers' second-round draft pick from 2000 has his sights set on the Brewers, who recently extended an invitation to big league camp. He is hitting .342/.404/.429 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in the Mexican Pacific League. That follows a season in which Bourgeois hit .286/.335/.404 for Triple-A Charlotte but struck out 65 times and drew 30 walks. He hit nine home runs, 23 doubles and five triples and collected 48 RBIs.

• Rockies lefthander Franklin Morales finished the Venezuelan League by going 4-3, 2.72 in 53 innings. He struck out 37 and walked 13.