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Baseball America's Daily Dish
Complete Daily Dish Archive
Compiled by Kevin Goldstein and Chris Kline
GREENSBORO, N.C.--Nothing about low Class A Hickory catcher Neil Walker betrays the fact that's he's still a teenager.
Not the 6-foot-3, 202-pound athletic build, not the way he carries himself, not the way he swings the bat among players two or three years older than him in the South Atlantic League.
And certainly not the seemingly ever-present five-o'clock shadow he sports on a daily basis.
"I just shaved this morning," Walker said, laughing. "By the time the game rolls around, it just gets like this, I swear. I'm going to have to start shaving before games pretty soon."
While he might appear older than he is physically, Walker also has an advanced mental approach to the game. A first-round pick last year by the Pirates (11th overall) out of Pine Richlands High in Gibsonia, Pa., the 19-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh relishes the opportunity to be a part of the club's rebuilding efforts.
"Unfortunately, my memories of the Pirates growing up were all the losing seasons," Walker said. "The one thing that stands out to me was the All-Star Game in '93 and just how electric the city was. With the All-Star Game being there next year, and with the younger players we have getting experience at the big league level, it seems like the morale in Pittsburgh really is escalating. It's good to be a part of my hometown team and I'm glad to be a part of what we're trying to accomplish."
Walker said he doesn't yet feel the pressures of being a first-rounder, but he understands everything that comes along with being a high-profile player. He has a strong family support system in place--his father Tom and uncle Chip both pitched in the big leagues, and his brother Matt recently retired after five seasons in the minors with the Tigers and Orioles organization.
"It's so early, so I really don't feel that (pressure) yet," Walker said. "I think as time goes on, there will be added pressure as the peaks and valleys of my career go along. I've had more help with the family I've have. When I have a crappy day, I just call Matt and he basically just tells me to relax--that an 0-for-4 day is going to happen."
Just like the city he hails from, Walker is a blue-collar guy--the kind of player Steeltown is likely to embrace as one of its own. A switch-hitter with power and the ability to hit for average from both sides of the plate, Walker could develop into a .300 hitter capable of 30 homers a season. Defensively, he has good feet and hands behind the plate and he throws well.
He also understands the value of understanding and handling a pitching staff, which is a key to his future success at staying behind the plate and not moving to a corner infield or outfield spot.
"Understanding them is the most important thing and understanding what's going on in their minds all the time," Walker said. "You have to know what they're thinking and have your own thoughts on pitch selection. There are so many things that go into play with dealing with pitchers. I think understanding their personalities more off the field helps out with things when we're out there together."
Defense is still a concern with five errors in six games, but Triple-A Toledo second baseman Ryan Raburn is starting to make up for it with his stick. Raburn hit his second homer Thursday and went 2-for-3 in a 4-1 win against Charlotte. Rayburn, who has drawn obvious comparisons to Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent for his offensive prowess, is hitting .263/.263/.500 in 22 at-bats.
Louisville righthander Elizardo Ramirez owns Triple-A hitters through his first two starts. In 14 innings, Ramirez has yet to allow a run or a walk, given up 11 hits, and struck out nine. Though he pitched out of the bullpen in seven appearances for Philadelphia last season, Ramirez has never pitched in Triple-A before. The 22-year-old Dominican pounds the zone with three average pitches--86-92 mph fastball, average curveball and changeup. He came over to the Reds from the Phillies last season with outfielder Javon Moran and lefthander Joe Wilson to complete the Corey Lidle deal.
Some scouts thought that the Pirates might have pushed lefthander Paul Maholm to Double-A too soon, but his first two starts indicate that he's right on track. Maholm, who was hit in the face with a line drive by White Sox first baseman Casey Rogowski in high Class A last season, made it back to low Class A Hickory by the end of the year. He pitched so well in spring training that Pirates officials saw no reason to hold him back. In 11 innings, Maholm is 1-0, 1.64 and has struck out seven and walked two.
In perhaps the pitching matchup of the night, Double-A Binghamton righthander Yusmeiro Petit faced off against New Hampshire righty Vince Perkins. Both pitchers dealt, but Petit's night ended early due to a strict pitch count of 50. Petit went four innings, allowed five hits and struck out five. Perkins, the Blue Jays No. 13 prospect, went six innings, allowed a run on four hits, walked one and struck out seven.
Orioles lefthander Adam Loewen is fighting a losing battle with the strike zone again. Loewen, the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft, walked six and threw a wild pitch in 4 2/3 innings of work in Class A Frederick's 6-5 win over Salem. In 8 2/3 innings this season, the 6-foot-6 Canadian has walked 11, struck out five and carries a 4.15 ERA.
Angels lefty Joe Saunders allowed only one hit and an unearned run over six innings in Double-A Arkansas' 7-2 win over Wichita. The 12th-overall pick in the 2002 draft, Saunders has yet to allow an earned run in 11 innings this year, surrendering just five hits. On the offensive side for the Travelers, center fielder Reggie Willits raised his season average to .444 with his third straight multi-hit game, going 4-for-5 with a double, triple and three RBIs.
One of the most dangerous offensive middle infield combinations currently resides in high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. Shortstop Brandon Wood and second baseman Howie Kendrick combined to go 7-for-10 with five runs scored in the Quakes' 8-2 romp against Modesto. Wood hit his third homer of the season. Kendrick has 11 hits and 10 RBIs in his last four games, and is tied for the Cal League lead in hits (14) and total bases (26).
Mixed news for the Reds' first two picks in last year's draft. First-round pick (7th overall) Homer Bailey, who missed his first outing of the year in order to ensure his surgically repaired knee is 100 percent, will be added to the Class A Dayton roster today and is expected to make his season debut in tonight's game against Ft. Wayne. Bailey is expected be limited to 50 pitches. Outfielder B.J. Szymanski, the team's second-round pick out of Princeton, was placed on Dayton's disabled list Thursday with a strained right knee. He was examined yesterday by Reds team doctor Tim Kremchek, with a long-term prognosis expected to be available later today.
One of the more aggressive roster decisions of the year saw the Dodgers push first baseman Cory Dunlap to high Class A. Dunlap, a surprise third-round pick out of Contra Costa (Calif.) Junior College last year, turned 21 on Wednesday and celebrated a day late, knocking in three runs in Vero Beachs 8-6 win against Palm Beach. Dunlap, who played in the Rookie-level Pioneer League last season, is part of a prospect-riddled infield that includes Etanslau (Tony) Abreu at second, shortstop Ching-Lung Hu and third baseman Andy LaRoche.