Speculation surfaced during the Pirates' first workout on Friday when Pittsburgh's first-round pick took infield practice rather than working with the other seven catchers, and general manager Dave Littlefield confirmed the rumors shortly after the session concluded.
"We made the decision based on his athleticism and the fact that, as we see our organization, we think that Neil has a lot of potential with the bat and we've got high hopes for him," Littlefield said. "We think it's a quicker way to the big leagues and a quicker way to help us in Pittsburgh."
The Pirates also seemed to have already settled on a long-term solution behind the plate in Ronny Paulino, who had a breakthrough rookie campaign in 2006 to join Oakland's Mike Piazza as the only two catchers since 1969 to play at least 100 games behind the plate and hit at least .310 in their rookie season.
"[Paulino] has every right to read and hear from me that we're very comfortable with him," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "Nobody gave him anything. He took the job.
"He's our guy, right now."
Walker, taken by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, is hitting .286 (299-for-1046) through three years in the Minor Leagues. He finished last season a Double-A Altoona despite getting a late start due to rehabbing his surgically repaired left wrist. In 82 games in 2006, the Pittsburgh-area native hit .271 with five home runs and 38 RBIs between Class A Lynchburg and Altoona, his likely destination for the upcoming season.
Third base is a position unique to the infield in regard to the defensive approach, but Walker has played there before. Though the last time was in high school in 2004, he is grateful for what little time he spent there, albeit a little wistful about storing away his catchers' mitt.
"I realized if I'm going to go at this full-go, I'm going to have to put this in the back of my mind, put [the glove] in the back of the closet and move forward as a third baseman, not as a catcher that switched to third," Walker said. "In the back of my mind, I saw this day coming, and I have done some stuff [to prepare]...I've taken some ground balls.
"I think they kind of prepped me to where I'm not completely thrown in the mix."
Is this Florida? Temperatures dipped into the low 50s for the second day at Pirate City and that, combined with the lack of sun and biting wind, had many grumbling. Of the 40 players in camp on Friday, just three brave souls -- Tom Gorzelanny, Dan Kolb and Brad Eldred -- wore short-sleeved shirts. A few Pirates even wore gloves in addition to their layers to stay warm.
Reporting report: A total of 32 pitchers and seven catchers are now in camp, the full load minus three pitchers. Right-handers Tony Armas Jr. and Romulo Sanchez remain in their native Venezuela while ironing out visa issues, while righty Serguey Linares does the same in the Dominican Republic.
Littlefield didn't expect the delay to be much longer.
"Those are kind of commonplace coming to start Spring Training," he said.
In other news, Michael Tejera is sidelined until his left-shoulder discomfort dissipates, while 2006 top draft pick Brad Lincoln will sit with right-elbow irritation that developed before Spring Training.
He said it: "Six weeks from now, we'll find ourselves in some cities where, maybe a day that's cold [in Bradenton], we'll wish we had." -- Tracy
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less