Biertempfel: Walker poised to start gaining national attention
After winning the MVP award last year, Andrew McCutchen learned quite a bit about the demands of fame. Fans seek him out in hotel lobbies. They interrupt him mid-bite in restaurants. What should be a five-minute stop for a latte can turn into an hourlong impromptu autograph session.
So I asked McCutchen the other day what it must be like for Neil Walker to be The Pittsburgh Kid, playing big league ball in his hometown. McCutchen shook his head and laughed.
“I can only imagine,” McCutchen said. “He's such a nice guy. He'll do anything for you. So with him being from this area and knowing so many people — all wanting to see him, wanting tickets, wanting this or that — I know it's tough for him. But he's making do.”
Even if he was a bench guy instead of the Pirates' everyday second baseman, Walker would be one of the most popular and visible athletes in Pittsburgh. He is outgoing, affable and plain-spoken — traits that would make him much admired on the national stage, too.
Perhaps this is the year that happens, the year when Walker's face is as well-known in New York and Los Angeles as it is in Wexford and Mt. Lebanon.
This could turn out to be Walker's breakout season.
“I hope so,” McCutchen said. “He's definitely had a good start, as far as his power numbers go. He's been able to produce, especially when our team has been kind of up and down in that aspect. He's definitely come along with his bat.”
A week ago, Walker went deep in the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. It was his ninth home run, the most among National League second basemen. Last season, Walker didn't hit his ninth homer until Aug. 27.
On Saturday, Walker hit a solo shot off Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg. It marked the fifth straight season in which Walker has gotten at least 10 homers.
And it's not just home runs. At midweek, Walker had reached base in 18 of his past 20 games. He was driving in runs, especially in high-leverage situations. From the seventh inning on, Walker was hitting .328 with four homers and had driven in 11 runs.
“He's trying to ramp up his (on-base percentage), which has always been in a pretty good place,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “The strikeouts are down, and the walks are up. He's continuing to play pretty good defense. All of it is coming together and putting him in position to play the best baseball he's ever played in a Pirates uniform.”
If Walker keeps up his pace, it's no stretch to think he could end up on the NL All-Star roster. All he needs is a bit of flash and dazzle. Walker's overall game always has been steady, but steady doesn't get you face time on “SportsCenter.”
“Yeah, I'm pretty boring when you get down to it. I'm as vanilla as it comes,” Walker said, smiling. “I know my role. Offensively, my role is to get on base for Andrew and Pedro (Alvarez), so they can drive me in. Defensively, I know how important it is to be a leader on the field and play good defense. It's very boring. It's very plain. That's what consistency is.”
One thing about consistency — it pays well. Walker is making $5.75 million this season. With two years of salary arbitration eligibility left, he could get at least $8 million next year and rake in $11 million or more in 2016. After that, Walker would be a 30-year-old free agent.
Will the Pirates try to lock him up to a multiyear deal? In 2010, Walker's first full season in the majors, the team offered him a deal similar to the six-year, $15 million package Jose Tabata accepted a year later.
Walker was wise to reject that first offer. He already has made $9 million in his first two arbitration year and should double that figure over the next two seasons.
The Pirates have not made another contract offer to Walker. Perhaps they will let him walk away as a free agent. Maybe they will trade him this year or next if the team tumbles out of the race.
One thing's for certain: If Walker leaves, it will be the Pirates who end up looking like villains. Even if Walker wears a uniform that's not black and gold, he'll always be just as popular as ever in his hometown.