Neil Walker - trigger25/Flickr.com
-- Tobias R., Coraopolis, Pa.
"Neil Walker absolutely has a future with the Pirates. Our recent acquisitions of Andy LaRoche and Pedro Alvarez had everything to do with acquiring talent and nothing to do with Neil Walker. Neil has shown flashes of Major League ability and as seen with most young players, Tobias, he has shown there are areas where he needs to continue to develop. As an organization, we will be closer to our goals when we have multiple players at various positions throughout our farm system that we believe will become Major League players."
Che Huntington provided a safe answer in a Pirates.com Q&A on November 26, but there's no hiding the fact that 2004's No. 1 pick is low man on the totem pole at the hot corner after a disappointing 2008 season.
Prior to the 2007 campaign, The Hardball Times' Chris Constancio listed Neil Walker as a catcher with "good potential, at least two years from [his] prime":
Walker's performance has never quite matched his pretty swing and highly regarded tools. In 2006, health problems contributed to his merely adequate performance. Walker, a switch-hitter, missed the first month of the season recovering from wrist surgery and later spent some time on the disabled list with a viral infection.
I can excuse his uninspiring power production because of the wrist injury, but Walker remains a free swinger who projects as a low-OBP player with questionable receiving skills. I'm not as optimistic about his future value to a big league club as most people, but it will be nice to see what he can do over a full season.
At 21, he answered Constancio's challenge with his most complete minor-league season to date, hitting .288/.362/.462 with 13 HR and 30 2B in 431 at-bats with Double-A Altoona. Despite a poor second-half performance (including a terrible showing in his initial taste of Triple-A), Walker was still well-regarded among prospect watchers.
In The Baseball Prospect Book 2008, John Sickels wrote:
[Walker] improved his strike zone judgment, and as a result showed more power than the year before. ... I'm starting to doubt that he is going to develop as much power as scouts previously expected. He moved to third base last year from catcher, and the position switch probably helped his bat. ... At this point he looks more like a solid future regular, and less like a potential star.
Sickels' "B" grade for Walker is translated by the evaluator's scale: "Grade B prospects have a good chance to enjoy successful careers. ... Most end up spending several years in the majors, at the very least in a marginal role."
In 2008, Walker hit .242/.280/.414 with Triple-A Indianapolis. He notched 38 extra-base hits (including a career-high seven triples) in 505 at-bats, but struck out an alarming 102 times while drawing only 29 bases on balls. All the while, Pirate management was busy selecting Pedro Alvarez with the second overall pick in June's Rule 4 draft and trading for Andy LaRoche, one of the better third base prospects in baseball.
Alvarez's signing process was drawn out by his agent, Scott Boras, and LaRoche slumped upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, but there's no denying both players are head and shoulders above Walker when it comes to a long-term depth chart. Alvarez was added to the team's 40-man roster after signing a four-year, $6.4 million major-league deal, and LaRoche has had continued success in the high minors of which Walker can only dream.
While, as Che implied in his Q&A, a team with a developing minor-league system needs to stockpile as much talent as possible regardless of position, barring the unforeseen, the Pirates will eventually be faced with a decision:
- Trade Walker a la Brent Lillibridge to fill a team need as the franchise inches closer to relevancy, or
- Move Walker to another position on the diamond at which he could help the team.
Given the fact that remarks from baseball minds like Constancio and Sickels likely aren't limited in nature, it would seem as if Walker has more worth to the Pirates as a player than he would as a trade chip. Huntington and Co. should value him more highly for his upside than any team looking to "buy low" would admit to doing. A position change is in order.
Again, there are more options:
- Send Walker back behind the plate. Given the presence of five catchers on the 40-man roster (including a regular in Ryan Doumit who should be entrenched in the position for as long as his legs can handle the beating), this doesn't seem likely.
- Give him an outfield corner, the next notch up on the defensive spectrum. This wouldn't necessarily meet the goal of finding for Walker a less crowded destination. Andrew McCutchen, Nate McLouth and Jose Tabata will hopefully form a talented core for an extended period of time, and Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce appear to be competent players, too.
- Go across the diamond to first base. Assuming LaRoche and Alvarez both stick as professionals (which may be a bit premature), one will end up at first, and Walker will again be homeless. That's not to mention the presence of Adam LaRoche, or Pearce.
The most intriguing possibility, and admittedly the least likely, would involve turning Neil Walker into a second baseman. It's not a position switch that routinely happens, but I think Walker represents a unique case:
- A phenomenal athlete, Walker was a member of the Post-Gazette's "Fabulous 22" team and Associated Press All-State First Team in football as a wide receiver. He also played basketball at Pine-Richland High School. He's not your typical lead-footed catcher or third baseman.
- Other converted catchers have gone on to play competently at second base. Most notable in this group is former Houston Astro Craig Biggio, a four-time Gold Glove award winner.
- Walker caught on at third base remarkably fast, with Huntington calling his defense "major-league caliber" already.
Even though another change would likely negatively affect his short-term offensive performance (as he spends more time focusing on defense), and despite the fact that it's an against-the-grain move, I have to think that the additional versatility could significantly improve Walker's chances of making an impact on the Pirates.
As I wrote Monday, Freddy Sanchez won't play forever, and the team's minor-league options behind him aren't clear-cut. Walker's bat at its ceiling would fit impressively into a second base slot.
And, as Sickels alluded, there's no saying that Walker will turn out to be a stud. Being able to switch-hit, cover second and third base defensively and serve as an emergency third catcher would transform Walker into a fantastic utility option at a minimum.
I think Neil Walker has a future with his hometown team, but I wonder if it won't be as a second baseman.
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