P.J. Walters: May be Out, but is Not Down

Right-handed starting pitcher P.J. Walters was assigned to the minor leagues by the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday. He discusses the aftermath of his successful 2007 season, his less eye-catching 2008 summer, his winter ball experience and much more in an exclusive audio interview.

With P.J. Walters' departure from the St. Louis Cardinals major league camp, catcher Matt Pagnozzi has to really be feeling alone.

One corner of the Cardinals clubhouse was previously the home of the high-number players – the non-roster invitees (NRIs) often considered the longest of long shots to make the major league roster.

After the departure of Blake Hawksworth on Sunday - the pitcher was Walters' next-door neighbor – Jon Jay and several others, it was P.J.'s turn late Monday afternoon, leaving Pagnozzi alone with his thoughts.

After pitching a spotless three innings against the Washington Nationals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, the last remaining NRI pitcher on the Cardinals major league roster was reassigned to the organization's minor league camp following the game.

Walters, the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007, had allowed just one hit and fanned one while issuing no walks on Monday. His major league spring ERA was an equally impressive and symmetric 1.00, with just one earned run allowed in nine innings over four games. The 24-year-old fanned nine and walked just two.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa characterizes Walters as follows: "He commands several pitches. He is a strike thrower primarily. His pitches have movement. He's a competitor as he's shown. He's got a lot of plusses."

Walters will now join what is a very talented 2009 Memphis rotation. Personally, he should be competitive with Hawksworth and Mitchell Boggs if long/starter reinforcements are needed in St. Louis later. The latter two are on the 40-man roster, giving them a slight advantage, all things equal. Walters would need to be added, but it will ultimately depend upon who is pitching best when the call for help is made.

As we discussed the Memphis club, I noted there looks to be fewer minor league veterans on the team than in many past years. After politely acknowledging several veteran pitchers previously on the club for helping him, Walters made a very interesting observation.

"We're the veterans now," he observed.

It is another indication of the maturing of the farm system that he, Boggs and Hawksworth all already know their way around Triple-A.

One of the benefits for Walters this spring was that he was more ready than some others due to the fact he pitched successfully in winter ball. It also didn't hurt that Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo was his manager.

La Russa clearly sees the value.

"Pitching in winter was good for him. With Jose there, you know he was in good hands. It is an edge for keeping him. He isn't starting from scratch as far as his conditioning and even if you save him a few pitches (by him relieving in the majors this spring instead of starting for Memphis), it may not be the worst thing."

Still, the manager knows Walters' greatest value to the organization is as a starter, so keeping him as a reliever much longer wasn't going to be in anyone's best interest.

"We have to be careful with that (keeping Walters too long). We don't want to set him back," Tony said.

There was no magic why Walters remained until March 23. He lasted longer "because he has been more effective. Every time he pitches in a one o'clock game it is good for him. But like the starters, he should be increasing his count by 10-15 pitches every time out," the manager said.

"You want him to be ready for starting at Triple-A," La Russa acknowledged six hours before Walters' Monday move was announced.

Though acknowledging Walters' chances of making the major league club this spring were slim, Tony offered this timeless reminder: "While you're still here, you've got a shot."

While Walters is no longer there, he has all the makings of someone who will be back – this time in the regular season.

Special bonus for Scout.com subscribers: Listen to Walters discuss his pitching experiences in this exclusive audio interview held Monday morning, prior to his three-inning stint against Washington and subsequent re-assignment to minor league camp.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at his blog, The Cardinal Nation.

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