In the first two weeks of the Washington Nationals’ Grapefruit League schedule, one player has stood out from the pack. He’s been hitting the ball all over the ballpark, he’s been hitting for power and for average, and he might just be a dark horse candidate to back up Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon on the Opening Day roster. His name is Zach Walters, and he has certainly made his presence felt this spring.
The Nationals acquired Walters from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 2011 trade that sent Jason Marquis to Arizona. Walters was assigned to High-A Potomac, where he began his quick rise through the Nationals’ farm system.
In 127 games with Potomac in 2011, Walters posted a .300/.367/.457 line with nine homers, 67 RBIs, 84 runs and 19 stolen bases. Walters briefly returned to Potomac in 2012, before the Nationals promoted him to Double-A Harrisburg, where his offense continued to improve. In 48 games with Harrisburg, Walters hit .293 with five homers and 16 RBIs, earning him yet another promotion, this time to the Syracuse Chiefs, the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate. Walters finished the year with 12 home runs, 49 RBIs and 56 runs scored between Harrisburg and Syracuse. Walters played 134 games with the Chiefs in 2013, where despite seeing has average drop to .255, he still hit 29 home runs and drove in 79 runs. Walters led the league in several offensive categories, earning him a September call up to the majors.
Six months after making his major league debut against the Miami Marlins, Walters is back with the big league club for spring training and he has gotten off to a scorching-hot start. After the Nationals 8-5 win over the Mets Friday afternoon, Walters is 7-9 with five RBIs, two doubles, a triple and a homer over five games. The 25-year-old has touched base 14 times this spring and is slugging 1.556.
While Walters has certainly been hitting the ball well, those stats don’t really say much. Only a few of those hits have come against major league pitchers and there’s no way to tell if the other pitchers weren’t just “trying things out.” For this reason, all spring training stats, both good and bad, should be taken with a grain of salt, or ignored all together.
That being said, there’s no denying that Walters is seeing watermelons at the plate. Regardless of the circumstances, he’s been the best hitter on the team so far this spring and that is not something that goes by unnoticed. But what does his hot start mean?
The Nationals entered spring training with what manager Matt Williams called an “open competition” between Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa for the starting second base job, with the loser presumably making the team as a backup. Despite what Williams says, most people, myself included, are still convinced that Rendon has the starting job locked up and that the true competition will be for the backup role. Veteran infielders Mike Fontenot and Jamie Carroll are also competing for the backup job but the list seemingly ends there for the Nationals and Walters does not appear to be in on the competition.
While that may be true and Walters may very well be back in minor league camp in a couple of weeks, he’s certainly outplayed Espinosa, Carroll and Fontenot this spring.
It took Espinosa over a week to get his first hit of the spring, and the other two have combined for just two hits over the teams’ first ten days of exhibition play. But just as we shouldn’t read much into Walters’ hot start, the same should be said of their spring training struggles.
Nevertheless, spring training statistics matter more for players like Espinosa, who does not have a guaranteed spot on the Opening Day roster. So while there’s no reason to worry about the fact that Scott Hairston is hitting .091, it is a little unsettling that the leading candidate for the backup second base job is batting .083 after playing just 44 games with the big league club last season.
So while the odds are still against Walters breaking camp with the Nationals, he has at the very least played himself into the conversation. Will it make a difference? Probably not. My gut feeling is still that Rendon will get the starting job, with Espinosa making the team as the backup. If Walters continues to play at a high level however, and the others continue to struggle, things could get interesting for the Nationals. There is also the possibility that Espinosa could be traded before Opening Day, but I don’t see that happening unless his hitting significantly improves over the next few weeks.
But while Walters probably won’t make the team out of spring training, I believe he will make an impact at the major league level at some point this season, just like Rendon did in 2013. Like Walters, Rendon was absolutely killing the ball during spring training, and while he did not make the team, he earned a call up later in the season and eventually replaced Espinosa as the starting second baseman.
So whether it happens early on in the year or in September, Walters will make his mark on the Nationals’ 2014 season. And if things go as planned, he may very well play in his first playoff game come October. For now however, all we can do is wait and see. It might not mean much right now, but Walters is playing some crazy-good baseball. And if nothing else, he’s certainly gotten everyone’s attention.