Pirates' former top pick Neil Walker questioning his future
Former No. 1 Pirates prospect Neil Walker, left, talks with current No. 1 prospect Pedro Alvarez during drills at third base in February in Bradenton, Fla.
Neil Walker was the Pirates' representative in the Futures Game during the All-Star break in 2006 at PNC Park.
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Neil Walker once was considered the future of the Pirates.
But now, five years removed from that June day when his hometown team made him a celebrated first-round draft pick, that future is foggy.
"The sheer truth is that I'm a young guy, and I feel like I can play at the major league level," Walker said before pausing. "And if Pittsburgh isn't the place I make it, I'm confident there is somewhere that I will make it. I just really don't know what the future is for me with this organization."
Walker cited himself and Indianapolis teammate Brian Bixler, a shortstop taken in the same 2004 draft who has been enormously unsuccessful in stints with the Pirates, as prospects taken by previous general manager Dave Littlefield who have not been treated the same as those acquired by current general manager Neal Huntington.
"Treated differently?" Walker replied to a question on that topic. "I don't know if 'differently' would be the right word, but you can tell who the old guys are and who the new guys are. I just look at it like this: In any situation, in any business, new bosses come in and want their guys and are more comfortable with people they see as their guys. That's the situation I feel like I'm in. I'm not one of their guys. Bixler and I are not their guys, and it isn't hard to tell we aren't their guys."
Walker also stressed that he has had no previous issues with the Pirates.
"I want to make it known that I would do anything for the greater good of the Pirates organization and I love the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh, always have."
Huntington was adamant that no negative approach toward Littlefield prospects exists at any level of management.
"Every guy in the system is our guy, whether he was here in 2007, 2005, or he just came here," Huntington said. "If you look at the opportunity that ... Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke have gotten -- Matt Capps was established at the major league level, but those others weren't -- and they're still here.
"In the minors, if you look at Miles Durham, Daniel Moskos ... we created an opportunity for Andrew McCutchen here. Sean Burnett is a guy we stuck with. We cleared an opportunity for Nyjer Morgan when everybody was screaming that we had to go sign a free agent. Rudy Owens is there. The guys who perform, the guys who work hard, who go about it the right way, they're getting the opportunity."
As for Walker, specifically, Huntington added: "We still think the world of Neil. We still think he's an everyday major league third baseman, potentially. We'd like to see that there's more bat there, but Neil is still a part of us going forward. We feel he has a great future here."
That future might or might not involve a trade, but this much is clear: Walker, a 23-year-old third baseman out of Pine-Richland High School in his second full season at Class AAA Indianapolis, faces plenty of competition.
Andy LaRoche currently has solidified everyday duty at third base in Pittsburgh, largely because of his dramatically improved defense. But he lacks power for a corner spot, and that is a concern to management.
Right behind Walker, in Class AA Altoona, is Pedro Alvarez, the most prized power-hitting prospect the Pirates have had since another third baseman, Aramis Ramirez.
"I know I'm still progressing, and I think I'm capable of being an everyday third baseman in the big leagues," Walker said. "Is Pittsburgh the best situation for me? That is something that we'll just have to see as the future plays out. If you look at it, it might not be. This just might not be the place for me."
This is clear, too: Walker hasn't exactly forced the Pirates' hand through his performance, certainly nothing close to what is expected of an 11th overall pick, which is what Littlefield made him in 2004. Through five-plus professional seasons, Walker's career average is .269, including .242 last year and .247 this year. He has shown a propensity to strike out (more than 400 in his career already) and has yet to top 16 home runs in a season, that coming last year with Indianapolis.
Most troubling for management has been a lack of patience at the plate. His career on-base percentage of .316 is well below par, largely because he walks so rarely. He has drawn 21 in 299 official at-bats this year.
And it isn't just within the organization; people around baseball have noticed.
In 2005, Walker was rated the Pirates' No. 2 prospect by Baseball America, then moved up to No. 1 the following year, then No. 2 again for 2007 and '08. This year, he fell to No. 6 and, now, especially with all the prospects infused by recent trades, it is difficult to find anyone in the organization who sees him among the top 10.
Acknowledging his offensive output has been a disappointment, Walker also pointed to a few other circumstances that have slowed his progression: An injured knee and pinky this year, as well as the switch from catcher to third base two springs ago.
"I've done everything this organization has asked of me," he said. "I've been a professional, moved from catcher to third and was named the best defensive third baseman in the International League last year in Indianapolis and drove in 80 runs in the same year. Some people just look at the average but, if you look at everything and what I've done defensively in a new position, I feel like I've done pretty well."
There is no denying that, as of late, he has picked it up with the bat, perhaps realizing the closing stretch could go a long way toward routing his future. In his past eight games, he is batting .457 -- 16 for 35 -- with three home runs and 16 RBIs.
"Confidence-wise, I'm OK," Walker said. "I'm just going at it hard every day. That is all I can do."
Hindsight is 20/20 with drafts, but others from the class of 2004 clearly have soared past Walker: Jered Weaver is 11-3 for the Los Angeles Angels; Stephen Drew is the starting shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Both were taken after Walker.
And then there are those who came much later, including three who weren't even first-rounders that year: Huston Street and Dustin Pedroia, the American League's most valuable player last season.
As such, nothing can be done to change the past in regards to Walker, from that time in 2004 when Littlefield chose to select him in the first round.
But, a baseball future remains for Walker, he's confident in as much.
In what shape that future takes with the Pirates -- or if it continues to take one at all for much longer with the organization -- would seem the more appropriate questions.
First Published August 11, 2009 12:00 am