Neil Walker gets a pat on the back from physical therapist Erwin Valencia at an Aug. 16 game against the Dodgers.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Three months after a back injury derailed the end of Neil Walker's season, he has returned to the batter's box.
The Pirates second baseman recently started hitting from both sides of the plate after six weeks of thrice-weekly physical therapy sessions to rehabilitate a herniated disc in his lower back.
"No setbacks, everything feels strong, everything feels good," Walker said at PirateFest, held during the weekend at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. "It's been good. I'm putting an added emphasis on core exercises, but outside of that nothing has hindered me as far as workouts."
Walker did not play between Aug. 27 and Sept. 13 because of back pain and tightness. He returned to play in eight games in September, but the updated diagnosis of a herniated disc ended his season a few games early.
Walker, 27, hit 14 home runs with a .342 on-base percentage last season and will present an interesting case entering his first year of arbitration. Walker is a Super 2 player, meaning he has less than the required three years of major league service time for arbitration but qualifies because he ranks among the top 22 percent of players with more than two but less than three years of service time.
"Obviously the numbers will be exchanged here pretty soon," Walker said. "We'll see where it leads, but it will be an interesting January."
A source said the Pirates have not approached Walker about a contract extension. Walker prefers not to negotiate during the season, meaning any such talk would need to conclude by the end of spring training or wait until the end of the season.
Walker will not be a free agent until after the 2016 season, when he will be 31.
Walker, who started his professional career behind the plate, has a unique knowledge of the Pirates' new catcher. Several years ago, he trained at Athletes' Performance, a workout facility in Phoenix, Ariz., with Russell Martin.
"He's an animal," Walker said. "He's as strong as they come, he's as hungry as they come in terms of wanting to win. Offensively I think he's going to really help us, especially if he's hitting in that seventh, eighth spot."
Walker said he was happy with the current roster construction because of, among other factors, the power that will return in 2013.
"It's exciting because there's some really good pieces," he said. "You've got three 30-home run guys [Andrew McCutchen, 31, Pedro Alvarez, 30, and Garrett Jones, 27] coming back. I think each of them approach-wise has improved or is going to improve.
"Andrew, the sky's the limit with him. I'll try to be the table setter and hopefully somebody like [Starling] Marte can settle into that leadoff spot and give us a guy who, on-base percentage-wise, is through the roof."
Walker's double-play partner, shortstop Clint Barmes, also voiced optimism about the lineup.
"I'm excited," Barmes said. "I had a lot of fun last year with this group. With the experience that the young guys got last year, hopefully they can build from that. It only makes them better. If that's the case, I don't see how we can't be a better team from where we were last year."
The Pirates still enter the season with uncertainty surrounding the corner outfield spots, where Marte and Travis Snider have the inside track, as well as the starting rotation.
"There's more there for us," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We all need to get a little bit better.
"I'm excited for this year after the lesson of the last two seasons. We've done some tangible good things but we've got a lot of work to do in some other areas."
Having their switch-hitting second baseman on the field for 150-plus games will give the Pirates a good start.