Monday, April 18, 2011

Where Does Neil Walker Fit Down The Road?

Neil Walker, 2004's number one Bucco pick, burst on the scene last year after Aki Iwomura played his way back to the Far East. Considered a utility player, he instead took over second and put up a line of .296/12/66.

The switch-hitter was equally adept from either side of the plate, hitting .298 with a 117 OPS+ against righties and .295/116 against southpaws. Walker was consistent, too, never hitting under .270 in his monthly splits. He's still raking; it looks like his bat is going to play for a long time in the show.

But like so many young Pirate players, he was thrown into the fire, given a position that he had no prior experience playing. On the farm, he had caught and played the hot corner, where he was an All-Defensive International League gloveman, and was forced to learn his new position on the fly in the crucible of the MLB.

The Pittsburgh Kid proved to be a strong player on balls in the air, but showed some problems with range, turning the DP, and with balls hit at his feet. Considering that it was his first taste of middle infield play, his -17/UZR 150 wasn't a surprise. But even Delwyn Young, who did have the advantage of playing the position some in the minors, did better, with a -12 UZR 150 in 2009-10.

GW thinks the Bucs would be better served with Pedro at first and Walker back at third defensively. But it's hard to fault the Pirates for conceding some leather to get their best eight players in the everyday lineup, and they're paper thin up the middle.

And to Walker's credit, he's worked hard to make himself into a second baseman; he does have only 120 games and one camp under his belt at the position. His range has improved, both to the eye and statistically, he's stronger on the pivot, and has picked up the relays and back-up coverage like a trouper. The Pine-Richland grad is a textbook hustler. His UZR 150 is -9 this year, not good but much better than last season.

But here's the rub; he's 200+ pounds, 6'3", and not especially flexible; balls that stay down still give him trouble. And he needs to hone his technique; he plays a lot of grounders to the side rather than getting behind them, though that should be correctable. That's just a matter of him still playing bouncers like a third baseman covering the hole; he has some work to do on his middle infield footwork and positioning.

The draft should tell us where he fits into the Pirates' long-range plans as an infielder. If Pittsburgh takes Anthony Rendon, Walker will stay at second. But that's not a given.

Rendon has been plagued by nagging injuries, and is seeing a lot of time as a DH this year, yet hasn't gone long in his last 134 at-bats. Now the power number isn't the downer; he's being pitched around in college like he's the second coming of Barry Bonds.

What's worrisome is that his aching shoulder has taken him off the hot corner, where he has a rep of being a plus defender. It's supposed to be a minor injury that requires rest, but it will assuredly be taken into consideration on draft day.

UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole has emerged as the yin to Rendon's yang in this year's draft. They're considered 1 and 1-A among prospects, and if signed early, both have the potential to hit the bigs by 2013. It will be a flip of the coin decision; the Pirates need help in both areas.

If the brass go for Cole, the Pirate's have options with Walker. If they select Rendon, the starting 2014 infield could well be Pedro 1B, Walker 2B, Chase d'Arnaud/Jordy Mercer SS (although the Pirates have d'Arnaud pegged for short, many national services profile him as a second baseman) and Rendon 3B. The right side may not be the slickest fielding tandem in baseball, but it should be one with some serious punch at the plate.

So we'll see. One thing the team doesn't have to worry about is control of the 25 year-old Walker, though he will get pricey. Remember, they brought him up three weeks before Pedro and Jose Tabata, with the thought that he'd be a bench player until Steve Pearce, who he replaced, returned to action.

Those three weeks, along with a September call-up in 2009, will make him a Super 2 arb-eligible player. The Bucs will have contract rights to him through 2016, but he'll have four arb years starting after the 2012 season.

What is fairly certain is that The Pittsburgh Kid should have a long run in his home town. The question is just what glove he'll wear.

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