Spring Training: Walker must finish what he starts

Management seeks stamina from third base prospect

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neil Walker lived the cliched, every-teenager's-dream existence at Pine-Richland High School: Classic, chiseled good looks to match a gregarious, easygoing personality. Star wide receiver on the football team. Darling of the dozens of baseball scouts who came to watch him, too.

It is about time, the Pirates' new management apparently believes, to see the kid handle some adversity.

For all that Walker has achieved since his hometown team extended that dream by drafting him 11th overall in 2004, the numbers will show that he has yet to have that one truly outstanding season most elite prospects have. The kind Steve Pearce has had. And Andrew McCutchen.

And the reason for that, the team's evaluators will say bluntly, is his inability to finish what he starts.

"Neil has to understand what it takes physically to play deep into October, which is where our franchise wants to get to," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He has to learn how to pace himself, maintain himself, have that in-season program of maintenance. And he has to understand how important that program is for him."

The Post-Gazette profiles the Pirates' top three prospects:

If that sounds like a challenge to get into better shape, it is not isolated.

"Neil needs to continue to work hard on his body to ensure that he can handle the physical demands of playing third base everyday," director of development Kyle Stark said. "He did fatigue at the end of the past two years."

Walker's 2006 season was delayed by offseason wrist surgery, but he got off to a .284 start with three home runs for Class A Lynchburg. Then, he spent the final month with Class AA Altoona and dropped to .161.

Last season, when he was converted from catcher to third base, he batted .288 with 13 home runs for Altoona. Then, he dropped to .203 after a late-August promotion to Class AAA Indianapolis. Even in the winter ball he played in Mexico after that, he batted .350 in the first half, but wound up at .268 thanks to a 6-for-42 finish..

To be fair, the first two instances involved a promotion and all the adjustments that entails. But elite prospects -- Walker is No. 61 in Baseball America's rankings released last week -- make those quickly. And they sustain what they start, which likely explains why the Pirates are stressing to Walker the importance of physical and mental stamina in 2008.

To be further fair, Walker is only 22 and, having been drafted right out of high school, already can be considered ahead of the curve in some ways.

Still, how to address it?

That wrist surgery, all insist, stopped being a factor long ago. So, the initial goal is to engage in superior conditioning for his 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame.

Walker seems to accept that.

"I'm going to have to make sure I'm getting my workouts in as the season goes on, make sure I'm maintaining some strength," he said.

The process will continue in a different vein with Trent Jewett, who again will be Walker's manager in Indianapolis.

"A lot of Neil's fatigue factor was probably mental because of all the newness," Jewett said. "He was facing players with five, six more years of pro experience. Those guys know how to get through the season. You have to deal with what it takes to put together a full season, from the travel to dealing with teammates to preparing to play. And I think he'll be better prepared this year because of the crash course he just had."

"Part of what I have to do is be focused and mentally prepared for the long stretch," Walker said. "I need to make sure I'm not giving away at-bats late in the season and staying ready."

From the baseball standpoint, too, Walker has plenty to do.

Offensively, scouts remain optimistic that, with continued maturation, his switch-hitting power to all fields and good pitch recognition eventually will match the forecasts. The most optimistic see many of those doubles -- he averages 33 per year -- turning to home runs.

Third base, though, remains a work in progress. The Pirates' previous management informed Walker he would be converting from catcher to third base two weeks before spring training last year, forcing him to undergo on-the-job training which, by all accounts, he handled well: He made 27 errors in 338 chances, a poor .920 fielding percentage. But those who saw him regularly say his fluidity and aggressiveness gradually improved.

"It's a tribute to Neil that he made as much progress as he did in a full year," Huntington said. "He's made huge strides, but he's still got a ways to go."

"There is still a lot of work to be done to be a major-league third baseman," Stark said.

The plus for Walker is that the worst likely is out of the way.

"The way I see it, there's no third-base transition," Walker said. "Now, I feel like I can really just go out and play and prove that I'm close to being ready."

He cited, too, his initial venture into winter ball, with Mazatlan of the Mexican Pacific League, which has intensely passionate fans and immensely challenging infields.

"The atmosphere was very cool. Very different," Walker said. "It was a great experience to deal with fans like that, who take their baseball a lot more seriously than we do here. They were harsher, too, in some ways. Every little move is scrutinized. And that's great for your focus."

And those fields?

"Lots of bad hops and other things you don't expect. It makes for an interesting game. But, overall, the great thing is you don't have time to be nervous or scared. You're just locked into the game."

Next stop: Pittsburgh.

But how long will it take?

"That's what I want to prove right away, that I'm not that far away, that I can handle what they want me to do there. Believe me: I want to get to Pittsburgh as quickly as possible, and I hope that happens this year."

Walker is 1 for 3 with a walk in early spring action.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published March 3, 2008 5:00 AM


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