Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Long Road From Gibsonia To Pittsburgh

Hey, Neil Walker could do it all back not so long ago when he was an AP All-State receiver for the WPIAL champion Pine-Richland Rams, toolsy All-America catcher, and solid hoops forward in 2004. In fact, he was twice named the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's "Male Athlete of the Year" for his derring-do on the field.

He hit .657 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs his senior go-round, and his nine won a WPIAL baseball title to go with the football crown. Walker was named to Baseball America's 2004 All-American High School team as the top catcher in the country and the USA Today's 10-player All-American team.

Walker was rated the #1 high school backstop by some other national gurus, and had accepted a baseball scholarship from Clemson in 2003, his junior year, hoping in the back of his mind that he'd hit the gridiron there, too.

But baseball was the road he chose; it was in his genes. His dad Tom was a MLB reliever, pitching six seasons for four teams, and uncle Chip Lang made 30 appearances in a couple of years with the Expos. His brother Matt was drafted by the Tigers, and made it as far as AAA in the Baltimore system before hanging the spikes up in 2004. His brother Sean played college hardball.

Even his sister Carrie got into the act - she played international pro hoops, and married into baseball, being the better half of Wexford's (now Mt. Lebanon's) Don Kelly, currently an infielder working for a spot on the Detroit Tiger's roster.

The Pirates made it academic when they nabbed Walker in the first round of 2004 draft with the 11th overall pick. Walker netted a signing bonus of $1,950,000, with an extra $100,000 on tap to pay for college. He was the third non-pitcher selected.

Walker was shipped to the GCL Bradenton Pirates and put together a line of .271/.313/.427, and was named the 5th-best prospect in the Gulf Coast League. Later in the season, he moved up to short season Williamsport and hit .313/.343/.406.

Promoted to the Class A Hickory Crawdads in 2005, Walker had a .301/.332/.452 line with 12 homers, 33 doubles, and 68 RBI, earning a spot on the South Atlantic League All-Star team at catcher after overcoming a slow start at the plate. He got a cup of coffee at High A Lynchburg, going .262/.244/.357 during his nine game stint.

While he showed good contact ability and extra-base gap power with the bat, he only drew 20 walks and allowed 22 passed balls in 79 games. The suits had their work cut out for him regarding his plate discipline and pitch recognition, weaknesses for the free-swinger, but they chose another road to cure his catching woes.

The Pirates decided to convert Walker to third base, partially because of all the balls bouncing off of the backstop, but mainly because Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino were in the system and had him blocked behind the plate, a theme that would recur again a couple of seasons down the road.

He began the transition to the hot corner during the 2005 Arizona Fall League as a member of the Peoria Saguaros, but it was a fairly short-lived try-out. Walker injured a ligament in his left wrist in early November in the AFL and required surgery, missing the early part of the 2006 campaign.

He still wasn't at full strength when he finally returned to action at Lynchburg as a catcher in late May of 2006.

He picked up the pace in late July and August and overall hit .284/.345/.409 for the Lynchburg Hillcats, then was promoted in mid-August to the Altoona Curve, where he hit just .161 in 10 games while battling illness. Worse yet, his power had almost entirely been sapped, as he hit just five bombs for the two clubs.

In February of 2007, Pirate management announced that Walker would be converted full-time to third base. He also got his first call to camp, and it was a family affair of sorts. Infielder Don Kelly, signed as a non-roster invitee to Pirate spring ball, had just married Walker's sister, making the two of them brothers-in-law as they entered camp.

After Bradenton, he headed to Altoona and hit .288/.362/.462 with 13 home runs, 30 doubles, 77 runs, and 66 RBI for the Curve. Walker alos led the team with 25 boots at his new position on the corner. But his stick got him sent to AAA Indy in mid-August, where he rejoined his utility man in-law briefly, hitting .203 in 16 games.

He went to camp in 2008 with an outside chance at making the roster, but it wasn't to be. He was shipped back to Indy, where he had a terrible start - some say because he was bummed at still being in the bushes instead of the show - heated up in the dog days, and leveled off towards the end.

Walker hit .245 with a team-high 16 homers, seven triples, 25 doubles, and 79 RBI in 130 games. The good news was that he only made 19 errors, and was named the best defensive infielder in the International League. Walker was also chosen as the 2008 Indianapolis Indians Most Valuable Player.

He's in camp, but the odds are heavily stacked for a return trip to Indy in April. At 23-years old, he's not exactly at a make-or-break point, but he has to start showing the suits something, and fairly soon.

After all, Walker was rated by Baseball America as the Pirates number two prospect entering 2008, and ranked by them as one of the top 100 MLB prospects in 2005 (81), 2006 (43), 2007 (74), and 2008 (61). But his play last year puts him at serious risk of losing his prospect with a bullet status. Walker was just added to the 40-man roster, and that will start the team clock ticking.

What to do with young Mr. Walker? Well, start by finding a position for him. First he was buried behind a logjam of catchers; now he has Andy LaRoche above him and Pedro Alvarez behind him.

But in the long run, his athleticism and versatility should only help his cause. He can catch in a pinch, he can play third, and it wouldn't take much to assume that with a little work, he could play a corner outfield spot or first base. Heck, it's even been suggested that he's capable of playing second.

So on first blush, if a regular position with Pittsburgh isn't in the cards, Walker could become a super-utility man in the show. Being a switch-hitter only adds to his value off the bench.

The other option is to use him, like Mike Gonzalez or Brent Lillibridge, as bait to lure some more talent into the Pirate system. Just because you amass ballplayers doesn't mean they're all going to end up at PNC one day. There's a lot of stadiums looking for players.

It's too soon to pull the plug on Walker, especially with a team in transition like Pittsburgh. The third base mash-up could just as easily become a black hole in a heartbeat if young LaRoche continues to flame, his big brother jumps into the free agent melee, and Alvarez snacks his way to first base.

And who knows if Ryan Doumit can stand up to the everyday pounding behind the plate? He only played 116 games last year, and the catching spot, at least for the number two position, could be up for grabs. Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz are unproven reserves, just like Walker, and neither was as highly touted.

If nothing else shakes loose, Walker could provide John Russell some much needed flexibility off the pine, and that looks like the direction the Pirates are taking in putting together a bench.

Hey, from the North Hills to Pittsburgh's North Side is just a fifteen minute trip by car. It's a heck of a lot longer, with many more twists, turns, and potholes, on the baseball trail.


WilliamJPellas said...

Walker as a utility man wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It would, however, make him a considerably lesser player than he was thought to be. On the other hand, Rex Hudler had a long and effective career as a super utility guy after being a high draft choice, and it would be hard to call him "a disappointment", per se. Maybe a similar storyline awaits Walker.

Ron Ieraci said...

Probably his biggest flaw, Will, is that he's just shown gap instead of HR power, and that's not a good thing for a #1 pick that plays the corners.

Still, I don't think his story has been written yet, so we'll see how it ends up.