DUNEDIN, Fla. — From 2010 to 2016, Neil Walker played in the fifth-most games (899) and hit the third-most home runs (116) of any second baseman in baseball. He won a Silver Slugger award and went to the playoffs three times. And he did it mostly with his hometown team in Pittsburgh.
It takes abundant self-awareness, then, to understand and accept a second act as a part-time player with four teams in the last three years.
“As an everyday player, when you maybe have to take a step back for whatever reason or your playing time goes down a little bit, it could be a shot to your ego, and some people have a harder time handling it than others,” Walker said Sunday. “I’ve been slowly getting to the point where I know this is a role that I can be very valuable in.”
Walker had just exited another spring-training game in which he attempted to prove that he’s worthy of a spot on the Phillies’ 26-man opening-day roster. Beads of sweat on his forehead, eye black still caked on his face, he got three at-bats and played five innings at second base against the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark.
And it was unclear whether any of it had meant much of anything.
This is Walker's 16th spring training since getting drafted by the Pirates in the first round in 2004, and in some ways, it has been his most humbling. The 34-year-old switch-hitter is closing in on 10 years of major-league service time and has made nearly $52 million in his career. But he signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies three weeks before the beginning of camp after being unable to secure a big-league deal as a free agent.
Walker hasn’t received any guarantees from the Phillies. He likely will remain in limbo, too, until March 19, when he can exercise an out-clause in his contract if he isn’t going to make the opening-day roster.
But there are two things that Walker knows for certain: He won’t go to triple A, and he can still help a major-league team.
Walker laughed off the first notion -- even though he would get a $100,000 retention bonus from the Phillies if he agreed to open the season at Lehigh Valley — because he’s supremely confident in the second. Given the transformation that his career has undergone over the last three years, it’s difficult not to believe him.
In 2017, Walker was still a second baseman when the New York Mets sent him to Milwaukee in an August waiver trade. The Brewers played him at first base down the stretch, and with free agency looming, he realized he had value as a utility player. Thus began his transition into the next stage of his career.
“It’s just being very open-minded and taking a whatever-it-takes-to-get-in-the-lineup mentality,” Walker said. “That’s a process you have to learn. But having done it now for two, three years, it gets easier because you start to develop a routine that kind of tricks your brain into thinking about, ‘OK, what can I do today to be successful?’”
Walker had help. His brother-in-law, Don Kelly, scratched out a nine-year big-league career — almost entirely with Detroit — by playing at least 100 career games at each of four positions (left field, third base, right field, first base).
With Kelly’s help, Walker made himself viable at first and third base and the corner outfield positions. He also developed a mental routine for pinch-hitting after years of playing every day.
"You may get one pitch to hit for an entire night, or one pitch to hit for a couple of days," Walker said. "Especially coming in off the bench in high-leverage situations, sometimes you have to assume that the first pitch you're going to see is going to be the best pitch you're going to see. One of the things that Donny shared with me was going into an at-bat and not letting the gravity of whatever the situation may be dictate your approach or dictate your mindset."
Walker took that advice into the 2018 season with the New York Yankees and went 3-for-11 with one homer as a pinch-hitter. Back in the National League, where there are more pinch-hitting opportunities, he went 7-for-23 with two homers last season for the Miami Marlins. Overall, he batted .261 with eight homers and a .738 OPS in 337 at-bats.
The Phillies surely would take that production off the bench. But Walker is competing for a spot with veteran infielders Logan Forsythe and former Pirates teammate Josh Harrison, both of whom have successful big-league track records, too.
It’s difficult, then, for Walker to not obsess over spring-training results. He went 0-for-3 on Sunday and is 5-for-23 (.217) with seven strikeouts overall. But he also knows that he’s being judged on a few handfuls of at-bats in exhibition games.
Walker has considered post-playing plans. Kelly is the Pirates’ bench coach and has offered perspective on a future coaching career. Walker also has dabbled in broadcasting, calling a few high-school football games in the Pittsburgh area this past fall.
But he isn’t ready for any of that. Not yet. If the last few seasons have taught him anything, it’s that he still has something to offer a major-league team.
“I know what I’m capable of from a playing standpoint,” Walker said. "When you have guys like myself and Josh and Logan that have pretty lengthy track records at the major-league level, you know what guys are capable of doing on the field.