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Walker Stays Home

June 7, 2004
By John Perrotto

PITTSBURGH--Neil Walker had a dream two weeks before the draft that he went among the top five picks.

That dream didn't come true but another one did Monday when the hometown Pirates selected the switch-hitting catcher in the first round with the 11th-overall pick. Walker is from Pine Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pa., just a 15-minute ride from PNC Park.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Walker said. "It's just a great feeling to know I'm a Pittsburgh Pirates. I'm just so excited. I've dreamed of this for a long time. I'm just excited to just get started on my professional career."

General manager Dave Littlefield watched Walker played seven times this year. Walker led Pine Richland to the district title and his team began the state playoffs Monday night.

However, Littlefield said proximity had little to do with Walker's selection.

"It isn't what his hometown is, he is a good-looking young player with outstanding hitting ability," Littlefield said. "We feel he has a chance to develop into a fine major league player.

"He has the ability to hit for average with the potential to hit for power, too. He is a good athlete who moves pretty well behind the plate, throws pretty well and runs pretty well, and he is also an outstanding competitor."

"Regardless of where he's from, he's the type of player we want in our organization," scouting director Ed Creech said.

Walker is the first high school player taken in the first round from a Pittsburgh-area high school since the Athletics lefthander Tim Conroy in 1978. Walker is also the first position player selected by the Pirates in the first round since J.J. Davis in 1997.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Walker was considered a probable second-round pick when the season began but steadily increased his stock throughout the year. He was hitting .650-12-37, and he was a sizzling 11-for-15 in the district playoffs.

"He's a premium bat, someone we'd hoped would still be there when our turn came to pick," Creech said. "You don't see too many young switch-hitting catchers who hit well from both sides of the plate. It's very rare to find a player with this kind of ability.

"We obviously saw him a lot of him as a player from our area and everyone in our organization who saw him liked him."

The track record of high school catchers making it to the major leagues is not good, though the Pirates defied that trend when they took Jason Kendall in the first round in 1992. Kendall is in his ninth season as the Pirates' starter and has appeared in three All-Star Games.

Creech said if Walker does not make it as a catcher that he could easily be converted to a corner infield or outfield position. The Pirates also have catching depth with Kendall signed through 2007 and prospects J.R. House at Triple-A Nashville and Ryan Doumit at Double-A Altoona.

However, the Pirates will give Walker every opportunity to succeed behind the plate.

"We look at Neil as a catcher," Littlefield said. "Things may change in time, particularly if we have a need at another position at the major league level, but we think Neil has a chance to be a starting catcher in the major leagues."

Walker, if he has a choice, would stay at catcher.

"You have to want to be a catcher and I definitely want to be a catcher," Walker said. "It's a hard position but I love playing it. Of course, if switching positions meant getting to the big leagues faster, I'd be all for it, but I hope I make it as a catcher."

Walker is already drawing comparisons in Pittsburgh to Twins rookie catcher Joe Mauer. The Twins used the first-overall pick on Mauer in the 2001 draft after he starred at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn.

"I'm a big Joe Mauer fan," Walker said. "I'd love to follow in his footsteps."

Littlefield, though, isn't ready to project Walker being in the major leagues in three years.

"Joe Mauer was the No. 1 pick in the entire country and he's a special case," Littlefield said. "I don't think it's realistic, as talented as Neil is, to think he can get to the major leagues that quickly."

Walker, though, does have major league bloodlines.

His father, Tom Walker, pitched in the major leagues from 1972-77 with Montreal, Detroit, St. Louis and California. An uncle, Chip Lang, pitched for the Expos in 1975-76.

"The fact that he comes from a family with a major league background definitely played a part in our decision to draft Neil as a high school player," Littlefield said. "He understands the expectations and what's involved in professional baseball more than the average high school player and he has a certain maturity about him."

Walker signed with Clemson. However, it seems certain he will sign with the Pirates, probably for a bonus in the $2-million range.

"I'm ready to play pro ball," said Walker, who will be assigned to Bradenton in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League if he signs. "I'm excited about getting started."

The Pirates are excited, too.

"We're very excited," Creech said with a big grin.

PITTBURGERS

Rookie infielder Freddy Sanchez joined the Pirates after spending the first two months in extended spring training while recovering from November surgery that removed a bone spur from his right ankle. The Pirates did not immediately activate Sanchez from the disabled list and did not give a timetable from his return.

Veteran righthander Juan Acevedo, two years removed from a 28-save season with Detroit, was released from Triple-A Nashville after going 0-4, 9.00 with one save in 18 games.

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