Neil Walker is the Pittsburgh Kid. Born and raised in Gibsonia, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Walker, he was a record-breaker at Pine-Richland High.
Walker graduated in 2004 as a star catcher on the Ram's baseball team and an outstanding wide receiver for the football team. And we mean he was all that.
He was a three-year starter at receiver. As a senior, Walker had 68 grabs for 1,128 yards and led Pine-Richland win the WPIAL Class AAA title. He played in what many consider the greatest championship game in state history, a 39-38 double overtime loss to Manheim Central that was played in a snowstorm.
Walker was an Associated Press First-Team All-State selection as a senior and was a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gridiron "Fabulous 22" two-time selection as a junior and senior.
Fuhgedaboutit in baseball. Walker hit better than .500 three years in a row. As a junior in the 2003, he played in the junior Pan-Am Cup. Walker was the DH for Team USA and batted .310 with a slugging percentage of .483.
Walker capped it with a brilliant senior season, hitting .657 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs. He had 9 doubles, a triple and scored 41 runs. He struck out twice all season. The catcher's slugging percentage was 1.403.
He was lights out in the postseason, too, hitting .765 in five games, and guess what - the Rams won the WPIAL baseball championship, too. He was a two-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year.
Walker also played for Jim Leyland's Beaver Valley Baseball Club. Geez, how hometown can you get? Well, how about getting drafted in the first round by the Pirates?
In 2004, they made him their top selection, 11th overall. He inked a deal for $1,950,000, and was off to the rookie league Bradenton team. Walker hit .271 there and was named the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League. Late in the year, he moved up to the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters and batted .313.
Promoted to the Hickory Crawdads in 2005, Walker hit .301 with 12 homers, 33 doubles, and 68 RBI. He made the South Atlantic League All-Star team as catcher, and got a cup of coffee in High A Lynchburg.
But a couple of holes were beginning to pop up in his game. He only drew 20 walks and committed 22 passed balls in 79 games.
The Pirates decided to try converting Walker to third base, partly due to his defense and partly because of the presence of catching prospects Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino in the system. He began playing third in the 2005 Arizona Fall League, and showed he was athletic enough to handle the hot corner.
But he injured a ligament in his left wrist on November 9 in the AFL and got the knife, missing the early part of the 2006 campaign. He still wasn't at full strength when he returned to Lynchburg, still a catcher, in late May, and it showed.
He picked it up in late July and August, and hit .271 for the Hillcats, then was promoted in mid-August to the Altoona Curve, where he played just 10 games while battling a nagging illness.
Walker was converted to a full-time third baseman during 2007 spring training. He stayed at Altoona and hit .288 with 13 homers, 30 doubles, 66 RBI and 77 runs for the 2007 Curve, but led the team with 25 errors at his new position.
Promoted to the Indianapolis Indians in mid-August, he hit .203 in 69 at-bats.
In 2008, Walker hit a disappointing .242/16/80 for Indianapolis, and that year began to raise some doubt on his "can't miss" prospect tag. His OBP was a dismal .280, as his lack of discipline at the plate took its toll in AAA. Walker had a 20% strike-out rate and only a 5% walk rate. On the other hand, he was selected the league's top fielding third baseman.
He did a little better in 2009, upping his average to .264, his OBP to .311, and he banged 14 round-trippers and plated 66 runners in 356 at-bats, missing several weeks because of a sprained ligament in his left knee and a broken finger. Walker also improved incrementally on his walk and K rates, walking 7% of the time and whiffing 17%.
Walker spent most of 2009 in AAA, but got a September call-up to the Pirates. He collected his first MLB hit in his second start on September 6th against Jason Motte of the St. Louis Cardinals. The 24 year-old didn't exactly tear it up in Pittsburgh, though, hitting .194 with one double and 11 Ks in 36 at-bats.
The Pittsburgh Kid's star has fallen dramatically. In 2005, Walker was rated the Pirates' #2 prospect by Baseball America, then moved up to #1 the following year. He was #2 again in 2007 and 2008, and fell to #6 in 2009.
Why the drop? His performance just doesn't match up to his pedigree. In six pro seasons, Walker's career average is .269 with an OBP of .317, and he's only taken 65 balls yard, not very much production from a first-round, middle-of-the-order hopeful. While his strikeout rate of 17% isn't excessively high, his plate discipline needs a lot of work; he's still very much a hacker at the dish. And, of course, the prospect pool has gotten a bit deeper in the past two years.
On the other hand, he's switched positions without a peep, and made the transition to third base pretty well. And he never did get much chance to get comfortable and show his stuff in September, probably because his call-up coincided with Andy LaRoche finally finding his stroke.
But it has to be in his head that he's behind LaRoche and Pedro Alvarez, and for the conspiracy fans...
"I'm a young guy, and I feel like I can play at the major league level," Walker told Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette in August. "And if Pittsburgh isn't the place I make it, I'm confident there is somewhere that I will make it. I just really don't know what the future is for me with this organization."
"I just look at it like this: In any situation, in any business, new bosses come in and want their guys and are more comfortable with people they see as their guys. That's the situation I feel like I'm in. I'm not one of their guys."
Whether that's so or not - and Neal Huntington has said on the record that he thinks Walker has the ability to be an everyday player - what is clear is that Neil Walker's future in the organization is reaching critical mass, and he needs to explode. He's on the 40-man roster, but still has two options left, so we expect him to start out 2010 at Indianapolis.
And that will be interesting. With Alvarez zooming up the charts, where will Walker play long-term? They could groom him for a utility role, along with about a zillion other high-level players in the organization.
There's always the outside chance that he'll move back behind the plate with Robby Diaz gone, where his bat projects better, although the brass have given no indication that they plan on that move.
The Pittsburgh Kid has become the Pittsburgh Puzzle.
(Next - #14 Jeff Locke)