BRADENTON, Fla. -- Now with two full years at third base and an entire season at Triple-A under his belt, maybe it should come as no surprise that third baseman Neil Walker has come into Spring Training with a sense of belonging.

That transition period from catcher to infielder has come and gone, to the point where Walker said he feels like he's been a third baseman for much longer. Those who watch him say the same thing.

He spent the 2008 season in Triple-A, marking his full season at the highest Minor League level. And, although his batting average suffered from some early season adjustments, Walker said he felt that by the end of the season he matched up with the experienced players at the level.

In other words, all combined, Walker believes that going into 2009, he's in an opportune place.

"This is the best I've felt early on in spring," he said on Monday. "It's encouraging. It's just important for me to go out and take advantage of the opportunities and to work hard and to prove that I am ready to help this team win."

Regardless of how good a spring Walker has, though, he knows his chances of going to St. Louis with the Pirates in April are still not in his favor. He still sits behind Andy LaRoche on the organizational depth chart, and management has made it quite clear that it intends to give LaRoche ample opportunities before taking the job away from him.

Furthermore, the Pirates don't have the luxury of being able to start LaRoche at Triple-A. He would have to clear waivers to be sent down, and the Pirates are not ready to risk losing the third baseman that they touted as a large piece of the Jason Bay trade last July.

The Pirates have no intention of sitting LaRoche or Walker on the Major League bench, so the decision appears to be fairly straight forward. That's not lost on Walker, who has read and heard all that's been said.

"The only thing that I can do right now is make this decision on them as hard as possible," Walker said. "I definitely think that there are priority guys right now. Obviously, there are some things that have to play out in my favor for me to make this ballclub, but at the same time, you can't really dwell on that as you go along."

Walker made his first start of the spring on Monday and should be able to get some more consistent at-bats now that Ramon Vazquez has left the club for the World Baseball Classic. He's was 0-2 with a walk in the game, though it's been his defensive play that has so far left the best impression.

"Defensively he's come a million miles," manager John Russell said of Walker, who was named the International League's best defensive third baseman last year. "He's very confident on the field. He really know what's going on. And the swing is coming."

Walker's preparation heading into Spring Training this year was a bit different than it had been in years past. This offseason was the first since 2004 -- the year Walker was chosen as the 11th-overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft -- that the Pittsburgh area native didn't play fall or winter ball.

He used that extra time off not to rest, but to work. After taking September off, Walker began working in October. He spent a lot of time hitting off the tee and fine-tuning some of his mechanics. He avoided long sessions of batting practice, preferring to spend his time doing more specialized work.

"If you just hit, hit, hit in batting practice and so forth, then that can lead to bad habits," Walker said. "I was happy with not playing this offseason and being able to focus mentally and physically at the task at hand. I knew this spring and this year would be really important for me."

He did participate in the Pirates' January mini-camp, as well as baseball's rookie career development camp right afterward.

The switch-hitting Walker is coming off a season of mixed results. Though he led the Triple-A Indianapolis club in home runs (16), triples (7) and RBIs (80), his season batting average of .242 left definite room for improvement. He also struck out 102 times and walked only 29 times.

Yet a season that began with Walker hitting just .200 during the season's first month was seen by him as an overall significant step forward. Why? Because by the end of it, Walker felt he had proven to himself that he matched up with the high Minor League talent that he faced.

"I definitely feel that going through what I went through last year and facing guys that have been in the Majors for long periods of time who come down really built my confidence," Walker said. "As you continue to play, you realize that those guys put their pants on the same way that you do and that you are working just as hard as everyone else to prepare and to do well.

"It was never a matter of 'if' I could play in the Majors, but it was a matter of 'when,'" he added. "And I feel like where I am right now, mentally and physically, I definitely feel like I can get there and stay there and help these guys wins."