Walker to be groomed as utility player

Walker to be groomed as utility player

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Though Kevin Hart's departure from the McKechnie Field clubhouse was the most notable, the Pirates made another seven cuts on Tuesday to trim their Spring Training roster to 37.

Neil Walker and Chris Jakubauskas were optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates reassigned five other players -- left-hander Brian Burres, right-hander Jean Machi, left-hander Wil Ledezma, outfielder/first baseman Brian Myrow and catcher Hector Gimenez -- to Minor League camp.

The cuts didn't come as much of a surprise, though Jakubauskas and Burres had entered Spring Training as candidates for the Pirates' bullpen openings.

Walker will be starting his third straight season in Triple-A, though this time not as the everyday third baseman since that position will be assumed by top prospect Pedro Alvarez. Consequently, Walker will find himself jumping all around the field to market himself as a utility player.

He will get some time at third when Alvarez takes a day off or serves as a designated hitter. Walker will also make appearances in the outfield, at first and at second as the season progresses.

"The way I see it, I'm an athlete," said Walker, a Pittsburgh native. "I believe I'm an everyday player in the big leagues. They do, too. There's still work to be done. To stay in this organization, I need to find a spot to play. Whether that's in the infield or the outfield, I don't care.

"I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen right now. I don't want to say I'm throwing away this season and already looking to next year. What's going on now will benefit me greatly. Going back to Triple-A is not a bad thing for me."

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Walker, a first-round pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, has been through the rigors of making a position change before. He transitioned from being a catcher to a third baseman in Spring Training three years ago. This spring, Walker began working around the infield and in the outfield almost as soon as he arrived in Bradenton. He made his first outfield appearance in a game last weekend.

"I kind of knew they weren't going to put me in the fire, as far as trying to play those new positions in the big leagues," Walker said. "I really feel like I had a good spring. I know I can help this team in the future."

While most of the focus was on Walker's defensive growth this spring, he fared well at the plate in a limited number of at-bats. The 24-year-old went 5-for-15 with two RBIs. He walked four times.

Walker will need to show consistency in his offensive approach and subsequent results in order to put himself on the radar for a callup later in the season. Up to this point, management has not seen enough from Walker with the bat to be convinced that he can be an offensive threat at the Major League level.

Walker hit .264 with 69 RBIs in 95 Triple-A games last year, though those final numbers were aided by the fact that he hit .339 with 29 RBIs in August.

"He's had a great approach this spring," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He just wants to help the Pittsburgh Pirates win. He's maturing with the bat. He's not giving away the at-bats we've seen in the past, and his work has been outstanding. He's bounced around the field, taken balls off the bat with two different groups, then hit with the third group. It's a lot of work, and Neil's really stepped up this spring."

Jakubauskas is expected to join Indianapolis' rotation, which will put him in position to be considered later in the season if the Pirates need a spot starter or a different long-relief option. Jakubauskas, whom the Pirates claimed off waivers this offseason, allowed six earned runs on eight hits this spring.

"He needs to go down there and build some arm strength," Huntington said. "We didn't see the same arm strength this spring as what we saw with Seattle. There's a difference there. It's a couple miles an hour, but it's made a difference for Chris."

Burres, Machi and Ledezma are slated to pitch in relief at Triple-A, though Ledezma is still working his way back from left shoulder soreness that halted his work early in camp. He is scheduled to make his first appearance on Wednesday in a Minor League game. Gimenez and Myrow will provide positional depth with the Indianapolis club.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.