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Can Walker save woeful Pirates infield?

6/2/2010

About a month ago an angry, bitter and likely long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fan -- there are many of them, I would guess -- kept e-mailing me about how bad his favorite team's regular infield was, from Jeff Clement to Akinori Iwamura and Andy LaRoche. Occasionally, he'd rip Ronny Cedeno at shortstop, though let's admit that expectations weren't particularly high there. I couldn't disagree about the totality of the underachieving, having been burned by each of these guys at some point in fantasy baseball over the past year or so. What I found interesting was this fan wasn't complaining about Pedro Alvarez needing to be promoted from Triple-A. This guy wanted Neil Walker in the big leagues. Neil Walker?

Each time I read this fellow's daily thoughts about Walker, I chuckled, because this didn't seem like someone who was going to make a difference in the major leagues. A switch-hitting third baseman and the organization's top draft choice in 2004, Walker didn't have the look of future stardom as he kept repeating Triple-A Indianapolis year after year, first starting in 2007. He was still there a bit more than a week ago, pushed over to second base so Alvarez could play regularly. Alvarez is the stud prospect, with immense power, knocking in nearly a run per game. Walker seems like organizational fodder, yet another top draft pick looking like a bust.

While it remains too early to recommend Walker in ESPN standard (10-team) mixed fantasy leagues, the Pirates' new regular second baseman -- this happened when Iwamura was mercifully benched over the weekend -- is starting to garner interest in deeper formats. He slugged his first major league home run Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs, a two-run shot off Ted Lilly in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead that Octavio Dotel held. Walker has been hitting since his recall May 25, delivering four multihit games in his first seven starts. For a kid who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, it's a feel-good story so far, as a prospect many felt had already failed might be pulling a Casey McGehee -- you know, marginal minor league stats but good in the big leagues -- and surprising everyone.

I admit I'm a bit disappointed in just how awful the Pirates' infield has been, sans shortstop Cedeno, who brought a brutal .280 career on-base percentage into the season. He's at .299 now -- his batting average is .255 -- so let's say he's having a good season for him. The rest of the boys have been terrible. LaRoche always hit in the minors when he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system, but I think he's had enough chances for everyone to see his power and plate discipline are just not translating to this level. He's only 26, but the Pirates seem to know he isn't special. Let's just say he's not blocking third base for Alvarez. I'm wondering if LaRoche becomes the next Wes Helms, a right-handed hitting pinch hitter. He seems a bit young to do so, but where's the upside?

Iwamura, once a key cog in the Tampa Bay Rays' World Series machine, seemed fully recovered from wrecking his knee early last season, and he still takes walks, but he hasn't hit at all. He had to be benched. The Pirates picked him up in November for middle reliever Jesse Chavez, which seemed like a steal at the time, as the Pirates needed a veteran stabilizer and leadoff hitter. Well, they still do. The $2 I spent on Iwamura in a deep league were $2 too much.

And then there's Clement, the former Seattle Mariners first-rounder (third overall in 2005) who can't really hit enough to play catcher, let alone first base. Clement homered over the weekend, his fifth of the year, but he has only nine RBIs and his batting average is .198. Yuck. How bad is it? Bobby Crosby has been taking his playing time at first base. I drafted Clement in a two-catcher league, and I've already had to move on. The Pirates should just play Garrett Jones at first base regularly.

While watching Walker on Tuesday, he seemed different, though with 32 major league at-bats it's obviously quite early to know what he can do. Plate discipline remains a big problem, and Walker remains unrefined at second base. A month ago the team was discussing him as a super utility player, someone who could play catcher and pretty much anywhere on the diamond in a pinch. I will say that from a fantasy aspect I'm more willing to take a longer look at a second-base-eligible player (as well as if he plays any catcher), and in about a week Walker should get his 10th game at the position. It's possible he'll disappoint like his colleagues, but I'm willing to give him a chance as he garners confidence.

As for Alvarez, now that June is here and prospects of his ilk are starting to get promoted with some of the financial concerns lifted -- have you heard of this Stephen Strasburg dude? -- you might be wondering when his time will come. I was asked on the air last week if I liked Alvarez or Toronto Blue Jays infielder Brett Wallace more, and I chose Wallace. Alvarez might have more natural power, but he's struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. Both Alvarez and Wallace should get promoted to the majors this season, but I don't think either warrants a preemptive add in standard leagues yet.