Ron Cook: Watch Neil Walker while you can



Can we all agree Neil Walker is playing the best ball of his life? He is having an All-Star season. No National League second baseman has more home runs, more RBIs or fewer errors. Walker has been one of the few bright spots on a disappointing Pirates team that is 23-27 even after its 5-3 win Monday against the New York Mets.

Can we also agree Walker is making big money? With the threat of binding salary arbitration on his side, he agreed to a one-year contract in January that pays him $5.75 million this season. That’s huge money for a kid from Gibsonia and Pine-Richland High School. That’s huge money for anybody.

But finding a consensus about Walker’s long-term future with the Pirates is much harder. He is eligible for arbitration for two more years before he can become a free agent at 31 after the 2016 season. It’s easy to imagine him pricing himself out of the Pirates’ budget. Trading Walker after this season or next seems more likely than signing him to a multiyear contract.

“I definitely want to get a deal done here,” Walker said.

Of course, Walker does. This is home for him. The Pirates also want to make it work — as long as the price is right. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

“The challenge is finding a mutual common ground between the two sides,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “The later it gets and the closer a player comes to free agency, the more difficult that challenge becomes because the player has really big dollars on his mind at that point.”

Walker said the Pirates approached him to talk about a long-term contract in 2010. There was none of that common ground that Huntington mentioned. “There have been no discussions since,” Walker said.

Walker was drafted in the first round in 2004 by then-general manager Dave Littlefield and the previous management team. Huntington didn’t take over until September 2007. There is a feeling — right or wrong — that Walker isn’t one of Huntington’s guys.

Walker doesn’t appear to be troubled by any of this. He said his focus is on the team’s rough start and doing his part to make it better, not on the contract talk or even the All-Star Game July 15 in Minneapolis. The Pirates had five players in the 2013 All-Star Game. They will be fortunate to get two — Walker and Andrew McCutchen — this season.

Walker’s play has been solid from day one when he beat the Chicago Cubs, 1-0, in the opener with a 10th-inning home run. His power production is way up with 10 home runs and 26 RBIs. He didn’t hit his 10th home run last season until Sept. 2. His consistency is way up. He has reached base in 22 of the past 24 games. His clutch hits keep coming. He has four game-winning RBIs and is batting .344 in the seventh inning or later with four home runs and 11 RBIs. His single in the ninth Monday started a three-run inning that won the game. Even his at-bats against left-handed pitching have been better. He is hitting .313 with an OPS of .827 against left-handers, up from .225 and .519 a year ago.

“This is the most consistent I’ve been,” Walker said.

Good health is at the top of Walker’s list of reasons. He said he’s in the best physical shape of his career. Much of the past two seasons, he fought and often lost battles with hand, side and back injuries. This season, he is the only Pirate who has started all 50 games.

“It’s been fun to see his evolution as a player,” Huntington said. “Our challenge and Neil’s challenge is to keep it going for longer than six or seven weeks.”

Walker has made himself into a strong second baseman after starting his minor league career as a catcher and then moving to third base. He has just one error this season.

“We moved him from third base because we didn’t think his bat would play there and we felt we had a better option in Pedro [Alvarez],” Huntington said. “The amazing thing is how quickly he adapted. He played second for just three weeks his whole life, yet you wouldn’t know it by watching him. He positions himself well and, when the ball is hit to him, it’s an out. That’s all Clint [Hurdle] can ask for. His reliability is off the charts.”

Walker’s success has added to his popularity, which already was significant. He’s not the player that last season’s National League MVP McCutchen is — few are — but he is the face of the Pirates franchise. He’s the Pittsburgh Kid, right? Pittsburgh fans love to cheer for one of their own and follow his every move. Walker gets tugged in a million directions. Everyone wants him to autograph this or that. Everyone wants him to speak to their church group or meet Little Johnny. The demands keep coming.

“I try to facilitate everything I can,” Walker said. “But I’ve learned that my focus needs to be on baseball.”

The good of playing in your hometown far outweighs the bad, Walker said.

“I love the fact my parents and friends get to go to all of the home games and even some on the road. My 93-year-old grandfather has been to three games this season. He lives in a retirement home, but he gets to see me play. He was here Saturday night. I love that…

“I’m very, very proud to be from this city. I love playing here. I hope I can do it for a long time.”

Huntington acknowledged potential contract negotiations with Walker will have a different feel. “We are very, very aware of his background and the attachment this city has to him and should have to him.” But Huntington quickly added that business has to be business, not just in Walker’s case, but with any player. “When we stop making logical, rational decisions and start making emotional ones, we’re going to get away from what we think has gotten us to a nice place.”

My rough translation:

Enjoy watching Walker while you can. He’s not going to be here for too, too long.

READ about Ike Davis’ transition from the New York Mets to the Pirates.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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