Neil Walker was a non-roster invitee to 2020 Philadelphia Phillies spring training as a switch-hitter whose experience and versatility could help bolster the club’s bench group.
Primarily a second baseman for much of his previous career in Major League Baseball, Walker has played with the Pittsburgh Pirates (2009–2015), New York Mets (2016–17), Milwaukee Brewers (2017), New York Yankees (2018), and Miami Marlins in (2019) in what has been an 11-year big-league career.
Walker is a Pittsburgh native who grew up just outside that city in the North Hills area. He was then drafted by the Pittsurgh Pirates in the first round at 11th overall in 2004 out of Pine-Richland High School. Playing those early years in his hometown was not always easy.
“I try to imagine I’m playing in a glorified Pine-Richland High School baseball game,” Walker said in a piece by Sean Conboy for Pittsburgh magazine back in 2011. “My parents come to 75 percent of the home games. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize the pressure, but there has been pressure since the time I was drafted. When it gets too crazy, I go fishing to calm down.“
Were he to make the Major League roster with the Phillies, Walker would be back playing home games in Pennsylvania once again, this time on the other side of the state in the National League East Division instead of the NL Central.
As everyone knows, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic brought an early halt to spring training and Grapefruit League play, suspending the 2020 Major League Baseball season. This has left a great many questions unanswered regarding roster decisions. For instance, both Walker and Logan Forsythe, also competing for a bench role, had March 19 opt-outs in their contracts. How would those be affected?
Phil Gosselin and Ronald Torreyes were also among those battling with Walker and Forsythe for what may end up being one final spots on the Phillies Opening Day active roster. The suspension of play leaves much to still be figured out by manager Joe Girardi, his staff, and the other Phillies decision-makers once activity ramps up again.
Following eight straight seasons where he registered a wRC+ of at least 106, the 34-year-old’s performance has fallen off over the last two years. Walker hit .261 with eight home runs, 38 RBIs, and a .344 OBP in 115 games while with the Yankees in 2018. His .261/.344/.395 slash line while with the Miami Marlins last season was good for a roughly big-league average 99 wRC+ mark.
Defensive versatility could play into the equation as the Phillies eventually make those final roster decisions. Walker played the vast majority of his games in the field last year at first base and third base with the Marlins. However, he did make one appearance at second base, where he played in 32 games with the Yankees in 2018.
With the Phillies, Walker as switch-hitter could provide a lefty bat to give Rhys Hoskins the occasional day off against a tough right-handed pitcher. His experience playing second and third would allow Girardi an option with some pop in his bat when resting Kingery and Segura, or in making double-switches when pinch-hitting for the pitcher spot. He could also serve in the Designated Hitter role against American League clubs.
He could end up having an edge thanks to his experience and his ability to switch-hit. Walker won a Silver Slugger Award back in 2014 while with the Pirates. He carries a career .267 batting average, has 149 career home runs, and has played in at least 110 games at the MLB level each season for the last decade.
Walker got to play with former Pittsburgh teammates Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison during camp with the Phillies. The three were major contributors to the Pirates during three straight playoff seasons from 2013-15. It is not out of the question that all three could wind up helping the Phillies back to the postseason for the first time in nine years this coming October.
With MLB increasing to a 26-man active roster (28 in September) my guess would be that the Girardi will want to go with a five-man bench group. Here is how that probably breaks down.
Either Andrew Knapp or Christian Bethancourt will serve as the backup catcher and take one spot on the bench. Either Adam Haseley or Roman Quinn will start in center field with the other filling a second bench role. Harrison, who can play all around the infield as well as on a corner outfield spot should get a third bench job.
If the season starts late enough to allow Andrew McCutchen to fully heal and be ready to go, then Jay Bruce will get another backup outfield spot. That would leave one bench job remaining…perhaps two for awhile if ‘Cutch’ is still not ready.
With more than 5,000 plate appearances in Major League Baseball, Walker will be a front-runner for that final bench spot. The combination of his experience, switch-hitting ability, defensive versatility, and offensive potential would be valuable to any big-league team.
Originally this was slated to be a two-week delay. Now it is looking more like a late-May or even possibly a June start to the MLB season. That inability to show what they have puts an even greater strain and adds more uncertainty than usual to the non-roster invitees and minor leaguers competing to fill big-league bench roles.
Phillies bench groups have proven weak in recent seasons. With players such as Bruce, Harrison, and Walker that prior weakness could quickly turn into a strength for the club whenever the game does return.
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