PJ in PR: Finishing in Style

It seems crazy to even suggest it, but in my opinion, right-hander P.J. Walters may be the most underrated pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system, at least at the upper levels.

All the 23-year-old did was take the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for the entire organization last year and our equivalent recognition from Scout.com, too. That was earned while pitching across three levels, as he began 2007 with Quad Cities. We ranked him as the Cardinals’ #10 prospect in the system last off-season.

Walters started the 2008 regular season with Springfield, then quickly moved up to Memphis. There were some whispers of concern as his won-loss record was not great in the second half. So what? Here are his last three months of results with Memphis:

June 25 0.327 0.431 1.80 4.32 9.72 0.72
July 30.3 0.248 0.284 1.32 3.86 8.60 1.78
August 36 0.203 0.262 1.31 5.50 9.00 0.75

(A tip of the cap to Minor League Splits.com.)

We can see his June was rough, as his opposing batting average and on balls in play were very high. Through July and August, the numbers moved back into more of an expected range. There was a momentary blip of home runs allowed in July and the walks are still too high. Other than that, it was a fine conclusion to the 2008 season for Walters.

He was asked to pitch in winter ball for Jose Oquendo and the Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Getting international experience and prolonged exposure to the coach rumored to be the leading candidate to follow Tony La Russa as Cardinals manager could only be a good thing – if the results followed.

For his part, Oquendo rewarded Walters with the opening night start for both Carolina and the entire league and kept him in the rotation for eight starts. Early on, before the arrival of catcher Yadier Molina, Walters had the additional enjoyment of pitching to a familiar target, Memphis catcher Bryan Anderson, who has since returned home.

Home is the next stop for Walters, too. He pitched his final Puerto Rican game on Friday night per the original agreement and will be home in time for Christmas.

Walters pitched to a Ponce club on Friday whose leadoff hitter was none other than last week’s big signing by the Cardinals, infielder Joe Thurston. His winter average fell to .288 as he went 0-for-4 against Walters and a quartet of relievers as Carolina breezed to a 7-1 victory.

P.J. picked up his third win of the season on 5 1/3 shutout innings of work on five hits, two walks and one strikeout as his pitch counts were carefully being watched. After all, between the regular season and winter ball, Walters has tossed just short of 200 innings.

Here is P.J.’s final line for the winter compared to his Springfield/Memphis regular season totals.

Spr/Mem 10 6 4.50 29 29 158 158 88 79 22 70 156 1.28 0.262
Carolina 3 3 4.34 8 8 37.1 42 21 18 3 11 38 1.83 0.290

Strikeouts better than one per inning, walk rate under control. Ground ball rate was up considerably compared to Memphis. Though opposing batting average was also up, the level of competition was too. Overall, a nice showing.

Importantly, Walters finished his Puerto Rican stint strongly, allowing just four runs over his last three starts, totaling 18 innings, including his longest outing of seven innings last Sunday.

On a footnote, word is that former Yankees great, outfielder Bernie Williams will be suiting up for Carolina soon as he tries to make the Puerto Rican club for March’s World Baseball Classic. Bernie last played in the majors in 2006. Oquendo will repeat as the WBC manager for his homeland.

Walton’s take: You’re going to see Walters listed too early in our Top 40 countdown currently underway at Scout.com, but it isn’t justified, in my opinion. While he will surely start at Memphis in 2009, Walters is clearly positioning himself to take a spot in the line of contenders for a call up to St. Louis when the need arises.