When the Pirates traded for Akinori Iwamura as a stop-gap at second base over the winter, I was fine with the move as a way to give up a marginal reliever to try and get some real help at a position where there was none apparently available in the minors for several levels. While you can place me firmly in the camp that thinks that at the very least, Iwamura’s bat will come around if the Pirates keep putting him out at second base, I also think that when his hamstring gets healthy he should head right to the bench.
That’s because the explicit purpose of this season for the Pirates is to figure out what they have in a bunch of young players and it’s time to add Neil Walker to the group of players that needs to be evaluated at the big league level. I’ve never been a huge Walker fan in the past, and I’m not trying to argue that he’s as good of a prospect as he was three or four years ago but the facts are currently inescapable; he’s tearing the cover off of the ball in Triple-A and doing so in a fashion that shows marked improvement over even his strong finish to 2009 (last August he hit .339 and slugged .538, but did so with only a .368 OBP and a 16/6 K/BB ratio, this year he’s got a .402 OBP to go with his .329 average and 18 walks to go with his 26 Ks in 169 PAs), he’s got an incredible glove, and he’s still only 24.
I don’t know that Walker will ever be a good Major League player. I think he might still more of a question mark than Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement, and those guys are older and struggling pretty mightily with the Pirates this year and their windows are closing rapidly. But Walker’s done everything necessary to play himself into a real big league audition at this point in his career. His spectacular defense at third base was perhaps the most eye-opening thing I saw from the team during my week in Florida (besides maybe Kevin Hart’s complete lack of control) and reading the Twitter accounts (bloggers Cory Humes and Rum Bunter, radio man extraordinaire Rocco DeMaro) of his play at second base today (the Indians are playing on the MLB Network this morning/afternoon) indicate that he’s taking to yet another position very quickly.
The Pirates apparently have concerns about his attitude and I have no way of saying if those concerns are valid or not, but if I were in Triple-A for a third straight season, killing the ball, and reaching the age where if I didn’t get a real big league chance soon that I might get slapped with a “Utility Man” label before ever getting a chance to play every day, I’d probably be frustrated, too. That’s not the Pirates’ fault, of course, because even a few months ago, his play indicated that at best he was destined for a life of pinch-hitting, defensive replacements, and optimal matchups. Now, there’s at least some hope that his bat might be able to support him at a non-offensive position like second base, especially if his excellent glove translates from Triple-A to Pittsburgh.
Walker might come up and struggle badly at the plate. There’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that’s more than possible. But he’s also clearly improving at Triple-A and there’s very little left for him to prove there. Even if he comes up and hits like Aki (which is to say, about as badly as possible), at least we’re answering questions about this club and it’s young players that need answered. Mark In Dallas did some research at Bucs Dugout and found that if the Pirates call Walker up after today, they won’t burn a year of service time. They shouldn’t waste even one day.