Sorting through the prospects, finding Neil Walker
Don’t feel bad if you’ve overlooked Pirates rookie second
baseman Neil Walker.
He’s used to it.
The hype-machine has never been used on the 25-year-old. His Minor
League performance wasn’t documented by many fantasy columnists and his
big league debut wasn’t highlighted on SportsCenter. He doesn’t have a catchy name like Starlin or
Buster or share the namesake of a famous musician or hit 500-foot home
runs. No one has proclaimed him the
savior of a franchise or projected him as a future Hall-of-Famer.
But despite the lack of pizzazz and fanfare that other recent call-ups have gotten,
Walker may end up being the most useful all-around fantasy player of the bunch when
all is said and done this season.
After drafting the local kid as a catcher with the 11th
overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, even the Pirates didn’t treat
Walker with complete respect. In 2007,
the Bucs moved him from his natural position behind the plate to the hot
corner because Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit blocked his path to the Majors. Despite being voted as the best defensive
third baseman in the International League in 2008, Walker was given the boot
from that position as well because of the presence of Andy LaRoche and phenom
Despite being shuffled all around the diamond, Walker
continued to improve with the bat. Increased plate discipline led to a
break-out season in 2010. In 168 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis this year, the
switch-hitter posted a .321-6-26 clip while stealing 10 bases and scoring 25
times. He smacked an impressive 18
doubles, which contributed to a .560 slugging percentage to go along with a
.392 on-base percentage.
Walker has translated that success to the bigs, putting up a .292-2-9 clip with two steals and 13
runs scored in 96 at-bats since being called up on May 25. The Pirates were impressed
enough to send Akinori Iwamura packing and Walker now has second base and the two-hole in the
Steel City all to himself. After
blasting his second homer and scoring twice in a 2-for-4 effort on June 17 —
his second two-hit game in three days — it’s time to start giving Walker a
little hype of his own.
Walker is older and has had more Minor League seasoning than
any of the highly-touted phenoms who have been promoted of late. He might also be more ready to contribute immediately in the Majors. Michael Stanton
still strikes out a ton, Carlos Santana has no protection, Buster Posey’s power
stroke isn’t fully there yet and Starlin Castro looks over-matched at
times. Fellow Pirate Alvarez hit just
.277 in Triple-A this season. Even if he is legit, the slugger can only help Walker in Pittsburgh’s lineup. Walker is also the only one of
these studs who does damage on the basepaths.
At a second-base position riddled with underachievers
thus far (Chase Utley, Howard Kendrick, Brian Roberts, Gordon Beckham) and fast starters who are running
out of magic (Kelly Johnson, Ty Wigginton), Walker may be well-worth taking a
flier on. He has the potential to put up a .290-10-40 line with double digit steals the remainder of the year.
Walker, who also has third base eligibility, is available in 95 percent of Yahoo! leagues. But that negligence should come as no surprise.