By John Perrotto
When Neil Walker made his major-league debut with the Pirates last September, the hometown kid was basically tied to the bench by manager John Russell. He got a call back to the major leagues on Tuesday and it will be interesting to see what kind of opportunity he receives this time.
Walker started just eight of 31 games after being called up in 2009, even though the Pirates finished the season by going 9-22 following the Pine-Richland High School graduate’s recall from Class AAA Indianapolis.
Russell’s rationale was that incumbent third baseman Andy LaRoche shouldn’t have had to cede playing time because the Pirates felt he was a large part of their future.
Whether LaRoche has much of a future with the Pirates now is very much open to debate. He has done little to justify his reputation as the key player among the four the Pirates received from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox in the 2008 trade that sent Jason Bay to New England. Furthermore, the Pirates’ top prospect, Indianapolis’ Pedro Alvarez, also plays third base.
LaRoche spent time in the Florida Instructional League last fall learning how to play second base. However, the Pirates weren’t comfortable enough to give the position to LaRoche and instead traded for Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Aki Iwamura.
Of course, Iwamura’s long-term status with the Pirates is also dicey as he is proving at the plate that Aki means zero in Japanese.
Walker’s future with the Pirates is just as murky. He has gone from the franchise’s catcher of the future when the Pirates selected him in the first round of the 2004 draft to third baseman of the future to super utility player of the present.
Walker had been playing all over the diamond at Indianapolis this season, taking turns at first, second and third base along with left field. There has even been talk that he might dust off his catcher’s gear at some point this season.
Ironically, Walker was off to the best start of his career while learning all those new positions as he was hitting .321 with 18 doubles, two triples, six RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts in 43 games for Indianapolis. A free swinger throughout his career, Walker even showed good plate discipline as he drew 19 walks in 189 plate appearances, helping boost his on base percentage to a robust .392.
Yet, the Pirates have been hesitant to praise Walker and even suggested in some comments that his work ethic and attitude were questionable. That criticism came as a shock to those who know Walker since he has had an impeccable reputation ever since coming into professional baseball.
The Pirates were forced into calling Walker up when first baseman Steve Pearce sprained an ankle in Monday night’s loss at Cincinnati. It was quite encouraging that Walker was in the lineup Tuesday night, starting at third base and even recording his first major-league RBI when he doubled home a run in the eighth inning of the Pirates’ 2-1 victory.
The Pirates have plenty of ways they can use Walker now. They can spot him at first base for Jeff Clement, second base for Iwamura, third base for LaRoche and left field for Lastings Milledge. None of those four players are indispensible and the Pirates would seemingly benefit by putting Walker in the lineup for any of them.
Walker is 24, not old but at an age when the Pirates need to find out if he can contribute at the major-league level. This time, they have no excuses for not playing him and learning the answer.
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates for 23 years and is the editor-in-chief of BaseballProspectus.com and baseball columnist for the Beaver County Times.