It’s been nearly three weeks since Neil Walker took the field for the Pirates.
As the third-year second baseman has struggled to recover from a lower-back injury, the Bucs have gone 4-11 to drop to a mere two games over .500 at 72-70. More importantly, they have completely failed to take advantage of the similar slumps orchestrated by St. Louis and Los Angeles, leaving them still behind their NL rivals for the league’s second wild-card berth.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Walker has to be feeling the emotional toll of this downturn more than anybody in the organization. The Pirates were looking like a lock to end a 19-year run of losing baseball and even return to the playoffs, and now both of those accomplishments are in danger of slipping away with 20 games left.
As if Walker wasn’t frustrated enough, he’s recently had to endure accusations that he isn’t giving it his all to get back on the field. The most public of those came from Pittsburgh-native Columbus Blue Jackets winger R.J. Umberger, who posted his harsh feelings on Twitter this week.
Umberger deleted the offending tweet, directed at Pittsburgh radio host Mark Madden, but it stands to reason there are Pirates fans out there who at least partially agree with the NHLer’s thoughts. The idea that Walker and the Bucs training staff is holding back is ludicrous, but missing a prominent player for an extended time can certainly cause emotion to override rational thinking.
While it has been informative to see Brock Holt in an extended big-league audition, this is the time of year a team needs to be as close to 100 percent as possible. With Walker out, the Pirates have seen their lineup sputter, especially in their current six-game losing streak.
Scoring 14 runs in a week isn’t going to make winning easy, and Walker’s absence has been especially crippling to the Pirates during this untimely slide. Prior to his nebulous injury, he had already surpassed his career-best in home runs with 14 and was above his MLB averages in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In short, he was developing into a consistent run-producing presence, hopefully for years to come.
Without him, the stagnation of Andrew McCutchen and the volatility of Pedro Alvarez have been put under undue scrutiny. Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have been forced to try to “lengthen” the Pirates batting order with limited success, as Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes continue to make outs at unacceptable rates.
On top of that, Walker has progressed defensively since getting a crash course at second base upon his permanent call-up in 2010. His double-play turn has become increasingly smooth, and despite a lack of extraordinary range, the 6-foot-3 Walker has been pleasantly solid handling all the grounders he’s able to reach. Indeed, his poise on the field has become quite valuable.
The Pirates’ lack of major-league depth has been exposed in recent weeks, which increases the importance of relatively experienced players like McCutchen, Alvarez, Garrett Jones and certainly Walker. Beyond that quartet, there is a plethora of replacement-level bodies available to chip in, but they clearly aren’t going to make a difference.
Of course, the pitching needs to be more consistent for the Bucs to stabilize in the final three weeks of the season, but without their offensive “core” completely intact, this is a below-average team.