Neil Walker: The dream lives on

Despite a demotion to the minors last week, former No. 1 believes his versatility has put him in position to be in the majors soon. What that position will be, though, is up in the air for the Pine-Richland grad.


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- No matter that he was sent packing the other day for Class AAA Indianapolis to start a second season there, Neil Walker clings to the dream from childhood "through today," as he put it, to soon don a Pirates uniform. Only now, in his mind's eye, he trots onto PNC Park to play third base.

And catcher.

And left field.

And right field. ...

"I'm open to anything as long as I get the opportunity to help this ballclub win," said the Pirates' 2004 first-round draft pick from Pine-Richland High School. He understands the value of utility in the major leagues. He understands his employer and hometown team is looking for a backup catcher, the position where he labored his first three professional seasons before the bosses switched him to third base in the 2007 spring.

"I'd be totally open to that. I've caught and I've played third base. Of the eight positions on the field, those are probably two of the top four toughest. Any other change, I feel like, wouldn't be as tough as the one I've already made."

He made the transition so seamlessly that new Pirates infield coach Perry Hill believed Walker grew up on a third base north of Pittsburgh. So seamlessly that general manager Neal Huntington labeled Walker not only the Pirates' best defensive third baseman but "without question ... major-league ready" to handle the fielding end. And Huntington said that Wednesday, when a technicality -- Walker's major-league service clock could've started as soon as this weekend had he stayed -- caused the Pirates to option him to their minor-league camp 36 blocks east of McKechnie Field and immeasurably farther from PNC Park.

Yet Walker wondered if his ticket home might come at more than one position, especially given Andy LaRoche's presence in front of him, after a July trade, and Pedro Alvarez's ascension behind him, after the Pirates' 2008 first-round pick raised eyebrows in spring training before being sent to Class A Lynchburg.

"Everybody knows who are the priority guys in this locker room," Walker said. "I'm not completely oblivious to that. ... You have to put those things in the back of your mind and continue to work as hard as you can to prove that you're ready to help this ballclub win.

"I obviously know that I'm not going to make this team as an extra guy. We've never had any conversations about [adding positions]. I know talking with them before spring training started, they asked me if I felt like I had any regrets changing positions from behind the plate. I told them straight up, 'No.' I feel really comfortable at third base. But also I let them know if it came down to make or break, I would do whatever it takes to help this ballclub win."

Huntington isn't prepared to take the utility course just yet.

He isn't prepared to consider the Pirates wealthy at third, either. After all, LaRoche has yet to prove himself as a viable everyday player in the major leagues. Walker -- Indianapolis' 2008 MVP with a team-high 16 homers and 80 RBIs and voted the International League's best defensive third baseman -- has yet to play in a major-league game. And Alvarez has yet to play, as Huntington said, "a meaningful regular-season game.

"Unfortunately, it speaks to a historical lack of depth: So much attention is being placed on these three players," Huntington said of the focus on that Pirates' position. "We're still developing Neil Walker to be an everyday player at the major-league level. When we have two guys who are well established, quality, everyday third basemen, then we have a decision to make: Do we trade one, or do we move positions with one? It might be Andy, it might be Neil or it might be Pedro who will go somewhere else or go to another position. Right now, we're excited about all three."

With LaRoche ailing and utilityman Ramon Vazquez gone to the World Baseball Classic earlier, Walker played 19 of the first 20 games. He batted .231 with three RBIs. His eight walks were third on the team this spring.

Batting remains his area of emphasis. Walker has worked with coach Don Long since winter at PNC Park to hit more up the middle, refine his approach. Huntington, upon Walker's demotion, talked about a need for him to better understand major-league pitching, hitting in counts, game situations, and so on.

"We're looking forward to him having a good year at [Class AAA] and to continue to earn his way to the major leagues," Huntington said.

"I totally understand it," Walker said of the move, which Huntington termed the "ugly" business side of the game. "I knew [being sent down] was probably coming, I didn't realize the date was so close. They made it clear when the time would come, they would not hesitate to call me up. I showed I'm extremely close."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com .


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