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Neil Walker’s Unconventional Path to Mini-Stardom

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Neil Walker has been a very solid 2B for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 6 years now, and was recently traded to the New York Mets to be their starting 2B for one year before he hits free agency. Times are good for Mr. Walker right now, but there were some challenges to overcome early in his career.

Neil Walker was born in Pittsburgh, PA and as is the dream of millions of young boys, was drafted by his boyhood team (in this case, the Pittsburgh Pirates) as the 11th overall pick in the 1st round. Walker comes from MLB bloodlines: Neil's father Tom was himself a first round pick for Baltimore back in 1968. Tom eventually had a decent six year major league career as a reliever, mostly for the Montreal Expos. Now it was Neil's turn, and he began his long journey to Pittsburgh... as a catcher!

Considering he was a catcher, and much younger than most everyone in his league, Walker managed to hit reasonably well in rookie ball in 2004, again in single-A in 2005, and yet again in high single-A in 2006. He wasn't a supreme power hitter, but he could hit some homers and doubles, and never was overmatched anywhere. In 2007, the Pirates decided his defense at catcher just wasn't going to cut it, so they moved him to 3B. The move was a success. Walker continued his above-average hitting at double-A Altoona that year. Before the 2008 season, Walker was considered a top-100 prospect, just as he had been from 2005 thru 2007.

But alas, 2008, his first year in triple-A, things didn't go so well and Walker suffered through his first disappointing season with an OBP of .280. Suddenly, Walker was no longer a member of the top-100 lists anymore. In fact, he was barely discussed in prospect circles at all! Although Walker was at this time still just 22 years old, "prospect fatigue" undoubtedly had set in. Walker did improve a bit in 2009 but not enough to make anyone remember that he was a former 1st round draft pick and a top-100 prospect just a couple of years before.

Meanwhile, the big league team Pittsburgh Pirates was in the midst of a record setting miserable stretch of losing seasons. The team had previously drafted slugging 3B Pedro Alvarez and had let their starting 2B Freddy Sanchez leave as a free agent. The 2B position was now a glaring hole in the lineup. The offensive bar for 2B is lower than it is for 3B, so the Pirates, with nothing to lose, decided to try Walker at 2B. If his defense was survivable, then his substandard offense, not good enough for 3B, just might work out for 2B.

And once again, the move was a success! Walker had a solid season with the bat in 2010 and managed to provide average defense at 2B resulting in a total WAR of 2.7. Walker finished 5th in rookie of the year voting and for the last six seasons, has been a consistent presence in the Pirates lineup. In fact, that might be the best aspect of Walker's game: consistency. From 2010-2015, Walker has provided league average defense and an offensive WAR of nearly 3.0. Every year, you can pretty much count on 15 homers, 70 runs, and 70 RBIs from Walker. He is durable, consistent, and still in his prime at age 30. He doesn't provide much in stolen bases, but otherwise, Walker is, and will continue to be, one of the best 2B in baseball.

He won't be a bargain, but it is also extremely unlikely that he'll be a disappointment either. He will provide exactly the value that he is expected to provide. Considering the turmoil he's gone through with position changes, and the high expectations of being a first round pick, it's hard to imagine that Walker will have any trouble dealing with the change of going from the Pirates to the Mets. Amid so much uncertainty in our fantasy universe, Walker's amazing consistency is something to behold, and to celebrate.