Third looks second nature for Walker
Pittsburgh prospect making position switch this spring
BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's a daunting enough task to be young and trying to crack a Major League roster out of Spring Training. Add in having to learn a new position, and you've got a clue as to what Neil Walker faces every day.
Walker, the Pirates' first pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, had been behind the plate his entire life, save for a few high school games which he spent in the infield. That was until he was approached by the Pittsburgh staff shortly before Spring Training and asked to trade in his chest protector for a third baseman's glove.
Walker responded by quitting catching cold turkey -- he said he stowed his equipment in the back of the closet -- and throwing everything he had into the new task.
And it's been such a smooth transition so far that those who didn't know much about Walker probably wouldn't guess he wasn't at the hot corner all along.
"It's been increasingly easier every inning," Walker said. "You try to learn from a positioning standpoint where you want to stand, where you want to be, reading the hitters and reading the balls off the bat. I've had a couple of opportunities the last two days to get some good ground balls and take some good information and listen to what the manager has to say about playing depths and things like that.
"I feel really good so far."
Putting Walker, one the organization's top prospects, at third serves as a good insurance policy for Pittsburgh. Jose Bautista and Jose Castillo currently are vying for the position at the Major League level, but at 26 years old, this could be Castillo's last chance to prove himself after his off year last season. Bautista also is entering his fourth professional season without having made a definitive statement about becoming an everyday player.
It's possible, then, that Walker would be in the right place at the right time -- and this time around with two to three years of infield experience under his belt.
So far, Walker is looking sharp. Having seen action in three games during the preseason, he's gotten a little bit of everything. During the intrasquad game came the hard shots, followed by the dribblers, bunts and popups in the days which followed.
Pirates manager Jim Tracy is impressed with everything he's seen from Walker so far, giving due respect to the 21-year-old's ability to adapt to the situation and calling him a "great natural athlete."
"I haven't seen [Walker] do one thing that would suggest to me that anyone would sit around and think that he couldn't, or won't, eventually be very good at that spot," Tracy said.
The hitting hasn't come yet, but Walker's only had four at-bats so far this spring. Given his history, it's too early to be a concern just yet. In 2004, Walker hit .277 between rookie level and short-season Williamsport, with 15 doubles and 27 RBIs through 60 games. A year later, he hit .298 between low Class A Hickory and high Class A Lynchburg.
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The 2006 season began slowly for Walker, who watched from the bench for a month while his surgically repaired right wrist healed, but he still hit a combined .271 at Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona in 82 games.
Walker had a list of goals heading into the current season, and he admitted he's had to revise them when he hung up his shin guards, but he remains optimistic that this is what's best.
"I think from the offensive standpoint my goals are pretty much the same: to improve on last season and the season before and really try to work to where my comfort level is extremely high and I feel good at the plate, hitting some balls hard."
There was some speculation as to where Walker would fit in the mix as a catcher. His defensive numbers weren't outstanding -- 18 errors behind the plate in the Minor Leagues -- and when the Pirates signed rookie catcher Ronny Paulino, who had a breakout rookie season last year, Walker's fate was sealed.
But, he said, this was the best time for a change to happen.
"It's one of those things where you're not really worried about making errors or things like that, especially in Spring Training, because that really doesn't matter," Walker said. "You've just got to play the ball the way you've been taught, and catch it and get it to first."
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.