Bucs Call Up Walker

Pittsburgh Pirates placed 1B Steve Pearce (ankle) on the DL; recalled UTIL Neil Walker from Triple-A Indianapolis.

The ankle injury is a tough break for Pearce, as the 27-year-old was beginning to get some big league playing time with Jeff Clement (.235 wOBA) flailing at the plate. Still, Pearce is basically a first base-only player who likely doesn’t have the bat to hold the position. The Pirates experimented with him in the outfield, but the 5-11, 200 pounder doesn’t cover much ground. The former South Carolina Gamecock owns a career .281/.354/.482 triple-slash at the Triple-A level, and his ZiPS projection (.269/.336/.455, .345 wOBA) is a little light for first base. He’s the new Chris Shelton.

Walker, meanwhile, is trying to revive his prospect status after all but falling off the map. The 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft began his career as a catcher, but was shifted to third base prior to the 2007 season. The 6-3, 215 pound switch-hitter turned in modestly productive offensive numbers in A-Ball, given that he was behind the dish at that point:

Low-A South Atlantic League (2005): .301/.332/.452, 3.9 BB%, 15.7 K%, .151 ISO
High-A Carolina League (2005-2006): .281/.331/.402, 5.6 BB%, 17.3 K%, .121 ISO

Baseball America ranked Walker as the #81 prospect in the game prior to 2005, #43 before 2006 and #74 leading up to the 2007 season. Before ’07, BA said that Walker’s power was muted in 2006 by a surgically repaired left wrist, but claimed he had “the potential to hit 30 home runs a season.” They did caution that he lack of patience could become an issue in the upper levels of the minors, and that Walker’s D behind the dish was a work in progress. “The Pirates might get more long-term production out of him,” BA said, “by shifting him to another position, and he has the athleticism to handle third base or the outfield.”

In ’07, the Bucs did move Walker to the hot corner, and he batted .277/.349/.434 in a season spent mostly at Double-A Altoona. His power improved somewhat (.157 ISO), and happily, he stopped hacking so much. Walker walked in 9.8 percent of his plate appearances, whiffing 17.4 percent. Baseball America again named him a top 100 prospect, placing him at #61 before the 2008 season.

The next two years of Walker’s career wouldn’t be nearly as sunny. At Triple-A Indianapolis, he batted .242/.280/.414 in 2008 and .264/.311/.480 in 2009. Walker popped some extra-base hits, with a .172 ISO in ’08 and a .216 ISO in ’09, but his plate approach was lousy. He drew ball four just 5.3% and struck out 20.2% in ’08. In ’09, he walked 6.7% and K’d 15.4%. Walker also missed time last year with a sprained knee and a broken pinky. The Pittsburgh native made his big league debut last September, but it was with considerably lower expectations than when the Pirates called his name back in 2004.

Prior to 2010, BA ranked the perennial top-100 prospect as just the 26th-best farm talent in Pittsburgh’s system. His scouting report was blunt: “he undermines his offensive potential by lacking plate discipline…Walker has expressed a willingness to become a super-utility player.” That, said BA, “may be his ticket to having a big league career of any length.”

With Indy this season, Walker has roamed around the diamond. He has logged time at first, second and third base, while also manning left field. He put up a .321/.392/.560 line in 189 PA. A .360+ BABIP certainly helped, but Walker posted a .239 ISO, walked 10.1 percent of the time and whiffed 18.5 percent.

ZiPS projects Walker to bat .259/.304/.439, with a .325 wOBA. His future in Pittsburgh remains hazy, though — Pedro Alvarez is going to man one of the infield corners in short order. And While Andy LaRoche will never be a star-caliber talent, he did post a 2.6 WAR season in 2009. If Alvarez takes over at third, LaRoche could be shifted to second base. Should Pedro play first, Walker could enter the picture at the keystone spot. The outfield corners are a possibility as well.

For now, Walker will get a little PT at third while LaRoche rests his achy back. Walker, 24, is no longer a top prospect. However, his position versatility and power make him a good bet to at least have a long career as a super-utility type.

We hoped you liked reading Bucs Call Up Walker by David Golebiewski!

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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