BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neil Walker has spent his professional career roaming around, which is irony of the highest order, because he is the one Pittsburgh Pirates player who has never left home. Walker was born in Pittsburgh, went to high school in Pittsburgh, lives in Pittsburgh. He is a rising star in Pittsburgh by playing Pittsburgh-style baseball: With an edge, with purpose, with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow. In assessments of his contractual situation with the Pirates, an understandably dog-eared subject by now, a caveat is applied to Walker that is common for the incumbents of any team: That he is unlikely to offer the Bucs a "hometown discount." Which is hilarious, because as it applies to him, it really is "hometown."
The Pittsburgh Kid's career has been far less static than his life. But after years of being the Pirates' designated replacement, Walker has finally found a position at the one place he never thought he'd play. "When I was a catcher, or even before, second base was the last place I thought I'd play," Walker said. "I thought, 'I can probably play a corner, or be a corner outfielder.' Second? Never even considered it." Walker's daydreams about alternate positions began to come true three years after his first-round Draft selection in 2004, as a catcher who had torn up high school pitching for Pine-Richland High in Gibsonia, Pa. And that remained his position through six different stops in the Pirates' Minor League chain. "At the time, Jose Bautista was playing third base here [with the Pirates], and [Ronny] Paulino and [Ryan] Doumit were catching," Walker said. "They [team management] liked all three of those guys. "Then Bautista struggled, before he got traded, and there really weren't any other third basemen in the organization, so they asked me if I would switch." In 2007, Walker thus went from someone who had never played another position to playing 130 games at third base. It began a three-year stretch in which he exclusively manned the hot corner over 356 games -- Double-A through his brief, nine-game debut in the Majors in 2009. However, that season also saw the pro debut of Pedro Alvarez, who went on to hit 27 homers in his first 126 Minor League games. Alvarez had been a No. 1 pick in the previous June's First-Year Player Draft. He had signed a four-year contract. His position was third base. "Well, yeah ... second overall pick. Of course he was going to be the third baseman," said Walker, who by then figured he would be a Major League utility man even before he settled into the Majors. "They decided to move me again, and I did become a utility guy [still in the Minors]. Played right, left, first, third," Walker said of an uprooted 2010 season that is only two years past, but must seem like a different lifetime. "Although I felt I was athletic enough, I never expected to play second." But Pittsburgh had decided a place had to be found for him. "I hit my stride offensively, and in 2010 everything really came around and I started to hit my stride," said Walker, who hit a lot more than that. As an obvious silver-lining to his extensive Minor League career, Walker had matured from a modest slap-hitter into a high-average guy with some serious pop. So, on May 27, 2010, Walker took his Pirates bow at second -- a position where he had played the sum total of 21 of his 563 Minor League games. It is the position Walker has now played for 264 of his 279 big league games, including a team-leading 159 in 2011. If there is another irony to his on-field barnstorming, it is that for the last few years, the Pirates have been going through catchers like a squirrel through nuts, looking for the right one. What might have been had Walker stayed behind the plate? "I don't like to think about it in those terms," he said. "I love catching. It was something I really enjoyed, being like the quarterback, someone who always had his hands on the ball. I was involved in it so long because I enjoyed it. "But from a physicality standpoint, my body feels a whole lot better. So I was definitely up for making that transition." His body bounces back better, too. Walker was scratched from Wednesday's lineup with tightness in his lower back. He will sit out a couple of more games, then be re-evaluated for a possible return. If there was any squatting involved, a "couple" probably would not be the starting point.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.