Versatility Provides Other Benefits To Pirates' Walker

Being a hometown hero isn't always easy, especially if you're a baseball player.
Neil Walker grew up around Pittsburgh, so when the Pirates selected him with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft it was a dream come true in many ways. But it also came with some headaches.

"Obviously, from the day I was drafted my friends assumed that I'd be playing in Pittsburgh at the end of 2004 or 2005, at the latest," Walker said.

Six years later, Walker is still in Triple-A looking to make it to Pittsburgh for more than a cup of coffee. It's unlikely he'll ever be the star the Pirates projected when they drafted him—they made that rather clear this offseason when they asked him to move to second base because top prospect Pedro Alvarez also plays his natural position of third base.

But Walker has gotten off to a strong start this year in trying to avoid the tag of draft bust. He's hitting .336/.404/.601 for Indianapolis, and he ranks in the top five in the International League in average, slugging and, surprisingly, stolen bases, with 10. And he's done it while playing four different positions.

When Walker arrived at spring training this year, the Pirates asked him if he would be willing to try different positions. A catcher when he was drafted, Walker moved to third base prior to the 2007 season. But with 2008 first-rounder Alvarez viewed as the team's third baseman of the future, the Pirates asked Walker to try a utility role.

It seems to be working out. He's played first, second and third base this year, as well as left field. He even dons a catcher's mitt to catch bullpens, and he serves as the Indians' emergency catcher.

"I think it's more of something that gives me more value and brings out my athletic ability," Walker said. "For them to be confident enough to believe I can quickly learn those positions and produce from an offensive standpoint, it's a test of my athletic ability. I felt like I would be helping myself. Obviously the goal is to be an everyday player at one position, but I saw it as a challenge."

It has been a challenge, but Walker seems to be handling it. In fact, his manager thinks it helps explain why he's having a better year at the plate.

"I think it keeps him a little more fresh and focused," Indianapolis manager Frank Kremblas said. "Overall, he's kind of rededicated. He seemed refocused after spring training when he didn't make the team. His mentality has been much better."

Focus has sometimes been a problem for Walker, as noted by Kremblas. As the Pirates see it, Walker's mentality is as much a key to him making it back to Pittsburgh as is his hitting. The Pirates didn't call him up last week, choosing teammate Steve Pearce instead, in large part because Walker failed to run out a pop-up the week before.

While there have been setbacks, Kremblas said that Walker has been taking lots of extra infield this year. The results may have paid off in other ways by giving him a little more quickness to go with improved intensity. Defensively, Walker is still learning the footwork and assignments that go with playing second base.

"He's looked good. He's getting used to it," Kremblas said. "The biggest thing is footwork more than anything—especially turning double plays. Catching ground balls is the same everywhere, but you have to learn the footwork on a double-play turn or the footwork to his glove side where he might have to spin around one time to throw.

"I think he can be big league average there if he continues to do what he's doing defensively."

The expectations for Walker nowadays are much reduced from what they were when he was drafted: a catcher who could hit in the middle of a big league lineup. Now, Walker hopes to provide value to the Pirates as a utility player—and that's more than many would have expected just two months ago.