Neil Walker hot out of the gates for the Pittsburgh Pirates
By Jake Misener
Two years ahead of a potential foray into the open market, Pittsburgh Pirates’ second baseman Neil Walker is off to a hot start this spring in Grapefruit League play – posting a .400 clip over his first three games.
Admittedly, that’s just a 2-for-5 mark, which is nothing more than a solid game during the regular season, but it’s still worth noting. With the Pittsburgh middle infield featuring more quality competition than at any point in recent memory, a solid start for Walker is more important than one may think.
Most of the attention has been centered around one of those aforementioned infielders, Korean slugger Jung-ho Kang, who has already hit his first home run of the spring – which was enough to cause an uproar of excitement amongst Bucs fans.
Kang, who has appeared in eight at-bats spanning four games, is batting .250 – with one of those two hits leaving the yard. He’s also seen time at multiple infield positions, which only increases his value to the team – which pegged him at four years and $11 million this offseason.
Walker, meanwhile, is coming off yet-another impressive campaign at the dish in which he earned his first career Silver Slugger award. He batted .271 with a .342 on-base percentage that was paired with a career-best .467 slugging percentage. He only appeared in 137 games, but in that action, showed why he could very well be one of the most highly-sought after names in free agency following the 2016 season.
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After hitting a career-high 23 home runs in 2014, Walker is poised to be a major part of the Pirates’ offense again this season – with the team eyeing an NL Central crown in a reloaded division. Coupled with Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen and a hopefully-resurgent Pedro Alvarez, the club should cause its fair share of worries for opposing staffs.
Walker’s success this preseason and early on in 2015 will be one of the biggest things to watch during the season. If he starts off hot – and continues that productivity through the All-Star Break, the Pirates may be faced with a decision: to sign the hometown boy to a long-term deal or prepare for him to hit the open market.
The team is off to a 3-2 start this spring in Florida, with one of the more notable storylines being a hyperextended elbow to the aforementioned Alvarez, who is expected to need a few more days before resuming baseball activities. Harrison, who suffered a twister ankle earlier this spring, is set to get back into the swing of things after playing five innings against the Twins this week.