Walters goes from under the radar to 'pen contender
Drafted five times, Mets right-hander broke out at Double-A Binghamton in 2013
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Minor Leagues' reigning saves king was not born into such prosperity. Jeff Walters was so unheralded as an amateur player that on four separate occasions, a Major League club drafted him in the 17th round or later.
Blue-chip prospect, Walters was not. Yet he kept declining those Draft contracts until 2010, when the Mets finally made him a seventh-round selection.
He has done nothing but justify that pick since. In his first big league camp at age 26, Walters sits among the inner circle of favorites to make the Mets' Opening Day bullpen. Perhaps lacking the flash of some of New York's more-heralded young arms, Walters nonetheless boasts an impressive resume. He has been there, done that in the Minors, racking up a Double-A Binghamton record 38 saves in 42 chances last summer with a 2.09 ERA.
"It was awesome, man," Walters said. "Pretty much from Day 1 they told me that I was going to be a back-end guy. I didn't know it was going to be every save opportunity, but I'm just thankful to be put in that situation and to capitalize on it."
Now the Mets are talking about shipping Walters all the way from Binghamton to the big leagues. Assuming veterans Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Valverde and Scott Rice all make the Opening Day bullpen alongside closer Bobby Parnell, that leaves three open spots for a group including Walters, Vic Black, Jeurys Familia, Gonzalez Germen, Josh Edgin and others. Ever the optimist, manager Terry Collins has spoken highly of all those pitchers. But he did single out Walters over the winter, pointing to the Binghamton closer's track record of success.
It wasn't always that way. Walters wasn't centered on anyone's radar as a high school senior, instead lasting until the 24th round of the First-Year Player Draft. The Giants, who took him as a draft-and-follow selection, encouraged Walters to attend junior college, knowing he could sign at any time.
He didn't, but Walters turned enough heads for the University of Georgia to offer him a scholarship -- with the caveat that they wouldn't have one available for another year, and ultimately wanted to try him out as a starter. So when the Nationals drafted him in the 47th round that June, Walters declined to sign again. He attended junior college for one more year, was drafted again, declined again and made his way to Georgia.
Still Walters' career did not catch fire. The Orioles took a 17th-round flier on him in 2009, before finally -- finally -- the Mets snagged him with a seventh-round pick in 2010.
"Once you get to a certain point, it's just a matter of confidence," said Mets Triple-A pitching coach Frank Viola, "and then taking that confidence and riding it out."
At that time, Viola was the pitching coach for Class A Brooklyn, where Walters latched on during his first pro season. A former starting pitcher himself, Viola noticed that Walters was obviously trying to pace himself in games, sitting in the high-80s with his fastball when he was capable of so much more. So Viola became one of the voices advocating a return to bullpen life for Walters, who embraced that role like never before.
He started throwing in the mid-90s with regularity. He started getting people out.
"It's like he had that the whole time, he just had to find his niche," Viola said. "The thing people don't realize about Jeff is he is very, very mentally tough. We had a lot of discussions. He had to learn the toughness, but he's able to do that now."
"I knew I had more in the tank, I was just trying to be too fine," Walters said. "And so from then on, I've just let it go. It's actually improved my mechanics and improved everything because I don't think about it as much. After practicing this stuff so much, muscle memory just takes over."
Now, he is capable of slinging mid-90s heat as part of a four-pitch mix -- rare for a closer -- that includes a sinker, slider and changeup. His specialty is attacking hitters early in counts, "making them feel the pressure." The result was more than a strikeout per inning at Binghamton.
Next up is an even stiffer test for Walters: big league competition. Up until now, he has succeeded by dominating mostly younger competition. But this spring, Walters will look to test himself against some of the best in the world.
How he fares will determine the next chapter in his winding professional saga.
"Thirty-eight saves in Double-A? Thirty-eight saves anywhere is impressive, and that shows him that he's capable of doing it," Viola said. "He's very confident in himself now, and that's the way he needs to be to get to the next level."