- Full name Neil Martin Walker
- Born 09/10/1985 in Pittsburgh, PA
- Profile Ht.: 6'2" / Wt.: 214 / Bats: S / Throws: R
- School Pine-Richland
- Debut 09/01/2009
Drafted in the 1st round (11th overall) by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2004 (signed for $1,950,000).
View Draft ReportA preseason BA High School All-American, Walker got off to a hot start this year, hitting .580-9-26 in 38 at-bats before he was suspended for three games after attending a party and consuming alcohol, a violation of his high school team's rules. Walker assumed full responsibility, and it looks like a minor bump in the road for the top-ranked catcher in this year's draft. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Walker has a large frame with a strong build and room for development. He has a sound approach at the plate, starting from a balanced stance, and shows a fluid uppercut stroke from both sides. He has a little more lift from the right side and projects to hit with above-average power. Behind the plate, he is an excellent receiver, blocks balls well and has an average arm with a quick release. He has good speed for his size, running a 7.0-second 60-yard dash and getting down the line in 4.4 seconds from the left side. Walker comes from a family of athletes. His father Tom and his uncle Chip Lang pitched with the Expos in the 1970s. His oldest brother Matt was an outfielder in the Tigers system, while his other brother Sean pitched at George Mason. His sister Carrie plays basketball at Wagner.
Organization Prospect Rankings
Walker made his major league debut last September, five years after he was drafted with great fanfare from Pine-Richland High in Pittsburgh's northern suburbs. His father Tom and uncle Chip Lang also played in the big leagues. Picked 11th overall and signed for $1.95 million as a catcher, Walker moved to third base prior to the 2007 season. He seems to have a limited future with the Pirates at the hot corner, because they have Andy LaRoche starting there in the majors and top prospect Pedro Alvarez on the way. After going on the disabled list last June with a broken pinky and sprained knee, Walker hit .291/.319/.517 after returning to earn his callup. Pittsburgh was expecting that kind of power when it drafted him, but he hasn't shown it with any consistency. A switch-hitter, he undermines his offensive potential by lacking plate discipline. A good athlete who was recruited by college football programs as a wide receiver, Walker runs well for his size and has turned into an above-average defender at third base. He has quick reactions, solid range and a strong arm. Walker has expressed a willingness to become a super-utility player who could catch and play both infield and outfielder corners. That may be his ticket to having a big league career of any length.
Originally signed as a catcher for $1.95 million with the 12th overall pick in 2004, Walker moved to third base on the first day of spring training in 2007. He has made a smooth transition defensively but has hit the wall offensively in Triple-A. The first-ever Pirates first-rounder from the Pittsburgh area, he's the son of an ex-big leaguer (Tom) and the nephew of another (Chip Lang). A switch-hitter, Walker has pop from both sides of the plate but needs to display it with more consistency. Recruited by college football programs as a wide receiver, he has outstanding athleticism and a strong arm at the hot corner. Managers rated him the International League's best defensive third baseman last season. He's an average runner with good instincts on the bases. He's intelligent and works hard. Walker has been inconsistent throughout his career and has yet to put up a truly big season. His plate discipline never has been strong and fell apart last season. He seemed to panic if he fell behind in the count and chased too many pitches outside the zone. Walker lost some of his value when he moved from behind the plate, and his future at third base is clouded after the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez and traded for Andy LaRoche. Ticketed to return to Triple-A, Walker eventually could wind up in right field because of his athletic ability and strong arm.
In 2004, the Pirates made Walker their first-ever first-round pick from the Pittsburgh area. He moved from catcher to third base on the first day of spring training in 2007 because the Bucs wanted to get his bat to the big leagues quickly. Walker has worked hard to become productive from both sides of the plate. He has good power and should hit more home runs as he matures. He also improved his plate discipline greatly. His makeup is off the charts and he is a popular figure in the clubhouse. His arm strength plays well at third base. A college football prospect as a wide receiver, he's a good athlete and has average speed. Walker still is getting the hang of playing third base and has some trouble with difficult plays such as slow rollers and balls to his backhand side. He also seems to have lost a bit of pop in his bat since tearing a ligament in his left wrist while in the Arizona Fall League in 2005. The Pirates could use help at third base, and Walker has an outside chance to make the club in spring training. He'll more likely work on his defense in Triple-A before a midseason callup to Pittsburgh.
After starring at Pine-Richland High, Walker became the first Pittsburgh-area player ever selected in the first round by the Pirates. He hurt his left wrist swinging a bat in the Arizona Fall League after the 2005 season and had surgery that November. He missed the first six weeks of 2006 and had limited power all season, though he did make it to Pittsburgh for the Futures Game. Walker is a rarity, a switch-hitting catcher with the potential to hit 30 home runs a season. He has plus power from the left side, though it was muted as he recovered from his wrist surgery. He also makes good contact at the plate. He's a good athlete with average speed. His arm is strong and he has a quick release. Because he doesn't walk much, pitchers at higher levels could exploit Walker's lack of patience. He threw out just 29 percent of basestealers in 2006 because his sloppy footwork costs him accuracy. His receiving also needs refinement, though he's doing better at shifting for balls. The Pirates might get more long-term production out of him by shifting him to another position, and he has the athleticism to handle third base or the outfield. Ronny Paulino's presence might also dictate a move for Walker, but he'll start 2007 as a catcher in Double-A.
Walker was born to play baseball, and it has been his dream to play in the majors since he attended the 1994 All-Star Game at old Three Rivers Stadium. His father Tom pitched in the big leagues for six seasons with four teams from 1972-77. His uncle, Chip Lang, pitched for the Expos in 1975-76. His brother Matt was an outfielder in the Tigers and Orioles systems. Walker was the first Pittsburgh-area player ever selected in the first round by the Pirates after hitting .657-13-42 in his senior season at Pine-Richland High, and his charismatic nature has enabled him to handle the attention with aplomb. In addition to being a prep All-American in baseball, Walker was an all-state wide receiver in high school and received plenty of interest from major college football programs. Walker is a rare commodity, a switch-hitter who can produce for both average and power. Though he's a natural righthanded hitter, he showed outstanding power as a lefthanded batter in 2005 and really has no weak side. He relishes the opportunity to hit with runners on base and projects as a middle-of-the-order run producer who should hit in the neighborhood of .300 with 30 homers per season. Walker has a strong arm and threw out 37 percent of runners attempting to steal in 2005. Though not a burner, he also runs well, particularly for a catcher. Walker could stand to take a few more walks, though he has been able to overcome that by his ability to make consistent hard contact. His defense needs plenty of work. His throwing mechanics are often inconsistent and he occasionally lapses into bad habits where he doesn't move his feet and stabs at pitches. While the Pirates believe Walker can stay behind the plate and reach the majors, they also believe they would receive more long-term production if they removed him from the rigors of catching. With that in mind, Walker began taking ground balls at third base in the Arizona Fall League with an eye on eventually moving to the hot corner or a corner-outfield position. He has the athleticism to handle the transition to any of those spots. Walker tore a ligament in his left wrist while swinging a bat at the end of the AFL season, requiring surgery that forced him to take a couple of months off. The Pirates expect him to be ready for spring training. How quickly Walker reaches Pittsburgh depends upon what position he ultimately plays. If he stays behind the plate, he likely won't be ready until 2008. If he moves to third base or the outfield, that timetable easily could speed up to 2007. He'll probably open 2006 at high Class A Lynchburg with the likelihood of moving to Double-A Altoona during the season. Walker excelled in his first season of full-season ball in 2005, then held his own as one of the youngest players in the AFL. That leads to the feeling he could get to the majors quickly and provide the Pirates with a sorely needed second elite hitter to go with Jason Bay in the heart of the batting order. They haven't had a starting position player from the Pittsburgh area since third baseman/outfielder Bill Robinson from 1975-82, and the winstarved fans would relish having one of their own to cheer.
Walker became the first Pittsburgh-area player ever drafted by the Pirates in the first round when they used the 11th overall pick on him last year. Also a star wide receiver and defensive back in high school, he signed for $1.95 million and instantly became the best athlete in the organization. He has good bloodlines, as his father Tom and uncle Chip Lang pitched in the majors. Walker is a switch-hitter with power and the ability to hit for average from both sides of the plate. He could develop into a .300 hitter capable of 30 homers a season. His power is particularly good from the left side. He has good feet and hands behind the plate, and he throws well. A better athlete than most catchers, he's a solid-average runner. Walker's righthanded swing needs to be smoothed out a little bit. Some in the organization worry that catching may take too much of a toll on his bat. If a change of positions is in order, he easily could shift to a corner infield or outfield position. Walker will begin the year at low Class A Hickory. The Pirates won't rush him, but his raw talent could push him to Pittsburgh quickly.
Minor League Top Prospects
Walker hit just .242/.280/.414 in his first full season in Triple-A, but his youth (he was 22), contact skills and ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate still make for an intriguing package. Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett said Walker hit in rough luck, and the numbers bear this out. He recorded hits on just 27 percent of the balls he put in play, well below the league average of 31 percent. Walker led the Indians with 16 home runs, and he flashes average hitting and power potential for a third baseman. A switch-hitter, he has shown more bat control as a righthanded batter. He's an intelligent and hard-working player who's still improving his strike-zone judgment. Drafted as a catcher, Walker always has shown a plus arm, and this season he turned the corner in his transition to full-time third baseman. A good athlete with average speed, he has developed solid-average range, great anticipation and the confidence to not force plays.
Walker began spring training at catcher, but soon afterward made his long-anticipated move from behind the plate. Playing close to his suburban Pittsburgh home, he settled in at third base and had a renaissance season with the bat, posting career highs in most categories. A switch-hitter, Walker has plus power potential and makes consistent contact. His athleticism helped him make the transition to the hot corner, where he became more aggressive as the season went on and showed good range to his left to go with a plus arm. "He was very consistent offensively from both sides of the plate," the NL scout said, noting Walker's near-identical numbers (.846 OPS hitting righthanded, .814 lefthanded). "Playing in the Arizona Fall League last year really expedited the process of him learning to wait for his pitch and not chase out of the zone, and it lets him use his power. He kept his wits about him with all the pressure of switching positions and playing in front of friends and family, and is a very mature kid."
It was a rough year for Walker, who missed the first six weeks recovering from wrist surgery that sapped most of his power. He also wasn't able to catch much while recovering, and he needs as much experience behind the plate as he can get. Walker's best tool is his bat. The switch-hitter has a line-drive approach, driving balls from gap-to-gap, and profiles as a middle-of-the-order run producer. He needs to tone down some of his aggressiveness at the plate, however. A better athlete than most catchers, Walker posted 1.9 pop times to second base but needs to improve his receiving and game-calling skills. "He just hasn't caught a whole lot at the professional level, and it's there he needs the most work," an AL scout said. " He's smart and instinctive, and he could be what everyone wants him to be. He's just not there now."
An athletic, switch-hitting backstop, Walker has as much offensive potential as any Sally Leaguer thanks to an easy swing that leaves the bat head in the hitting zone a long time. He has strength to go with a solid ability to make contact for such a young hitter, particularly one from a Northern state. Walker draws few walks because he puts the bat on the ball so easily, but the biggest question surrounding him is his future position. He's somewhat stiff behind the plate and needs to work on his receiving, blocking and throwing. He did improve in all those areas as well as game-calling during the year, and he did throw out 37 percent of basestealers. "His offensive ceiling is that of a .300 hitter with 25 homers," a National League scout said, "but he probably will not catch. It's not that he can't. He's not a zero. He needs repetitions, and if he gets them he can be an offensive catcher. But his bat might be so good, he might move faster than that."
The 11th overall pick in this year's draft, Walker shared catching duties with Steve Lerud, a third-rounder from 2003, in order to stay fresh in the stifling Florida heat. Both players can swing the bat, but the more athletic, switch-hitting Walker has the more complete package. "You wonder if he might be too athletic to stay behind the plate," said Pirates manager Woody Huyke, a former Triple-A catcher. "He could play practically anywhere on the field. He can run and he'll be a good hitter. He's got power from both sides." Though his catching skills are raw, Walker has average arm strength and moves well behind the plate, enabling him to block balls efficiently. His speed is above-average for the position. He should become the third member of his family to reach the majors, following in the footsteps of his father Tom and his uncle, Chip Lang.
Top 100 Rankings
Best Tools List
- Rated Best Defensive 3B in the International League in 2008
- Rated Best Power Hitter in the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007
- Rated Best Athlete in the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006