Time Running Out For Walker

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Neil Walker out of a local high school in the first round of the 2004 draft (11th overall). At the time, he was a young, promising, switch-hitting catcher. More than four years later, though, Walker is on the cusp of the Major Leagues but he has been converted to the hot corner.

The move from behind the plate really does hurt Walker’s potential quite a bit. With catchers, any type of offence is considered a bonus, as long as they play solid defence and call a good game. At third base, though, the bat is under the microscope as this position is traditionally a power position.

In five minor league seasons, Walker’s line looks like this: .273/.320/.426. That is OK, but not spectacular for a former No. 1 draft pick hoping to play third base at the Major League level, especially given that Walker hit just .242/.280/.414 in 505 at-bats during the 2008 Triple-A season. On the plus side, he did hit a career-high 16 homers and drove in 80 runs.

On the downside, he walked just 5.4% of the time, had an OPS of .697 and an ISO of .172, none of which screams impact bat. Walker will be just 24 next season but he will need to make some adjustments and get his bat going if he hopes to avoid getting left behind. Earlier this season, Pittsburgh obtained top third base prospect Andy LaRoche from the Los Angeles Dodges and he has a head start on claiming the title of third baseman of the future.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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Nice article. I would note that .694 is the OPS from the batting line above and that if he was drafted from high school and its four years later, he is probably 23 next season. Given that, and that most prospects lose their prospect status at 26, I would think that he has 3-4 more seasons to develop and become an MLB starter, so time is not so much running out as starting to dwindle.

In addition, he’s only 22 playing in AAA against pitchers who average 27.2 years of age, meaning they on average have 5 more years experience on him, or more than double his years of experience since high school.

In addition, the International League is not that offensive-driven as, say, the PCL is, with a league average OPS of .738, which his .694 is not that far off from (about 5% lower).

And I don’t know how many 22 and younger players are in the lL, but out of the top 100 hitters, there were only 3 22 and younger: Jay Bruce, Asdrubal Cabrera, and fellow Pirate prospect, Andrew McCutchen (FYI, the 100th best hitter had an OPS of .729). Thus, it is pretty hard for a young prospect to reach AAA, so that in itself is an accomplishment for Walker, and then to be near league average (about only 5% away) when facing much more experienced pitchers than he as a batter is another accomplishment.

As a sign of his youthfulness, his hitting was all over the place when viewed monthly. However, he gave a hint of the power he has latent in his skills in June when he hit .248/.280/.515/.795, with 7 HR in 101 AB (15 AB/HR) and ISO of 267. Alas, he did not do that well in other months, but in May he did hit .245/.264/.453/.717, with 4 HR in 106 AB (27 AB/HR) and ISO of 208, which is still pretty good power, adequate for 3B, though he would still need to boost his OBP a lot to be considered adequate offensively at 3B.

However, in the other months he struggled. At least in his last month (Aug) he got more walks than he had in any other month by a good margin, 10 BB vs. his high of 7 BB (and average of 5) in the other months. His OBP that month was a decent .331, which if he can combine with the power he showed in May/June, would make him a good offensive 3B. But his homer total was 1 or 2 in all the other months, poor totals indeed.

He needs to work on being more consistent and on practicing better plate discipline and not striking out so much, plus taking more walks in addition. He has shown success in one or another in a number of months, but needs to put it together and do them all in one month.