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12/18/09 3:55 PM EST

Walker's third-base window closing

One-time top Bucs prospect might need more versatility

PITTSBURGH -- He remains the local guy the city pulls for, but it's becoming increasingly evident that Neil Walker is not in the Pirates' immediate plans.

Walker made his much-anticipated Major League debut late last season after being added to the roster in September. The former first-round pick hit .194 in 36 at-bats after batting .264 in 95 games with Triple-A Indianapolis.

Certainly the raw numbers leave much to be desired. But the checklist the organization would like to see Walker accomplish in the Minors doesn't seem to have gotten much smaller in the past 12 months. This is the reality, despite Walker having spent more than two seasons in Triple-A.

In other words, don't count on Walker supplanting Andy LaRoche at third in the near future.

"Sitting here today, we feel like we have one Major League third baseman, and that is Andy LaRoche," general manager Neal Huntington said. "[Walker] needs to continue to mature and get stronger. He still hasn't really dominated the Triple-A level to show that, 'Hey, I'm ready to be a Major League player.' He hasn't necessarily earned his way to the Major League level."

Manager John Russell's recent assessment of the 24-year-old catcher-turned-third baseman offered similar concerns.

"He has a long way to go to make an impact at the Major League level," Russell said at the Winter Meetings. "He went to winter ball, which was a good thing for him. He has a lot of things to still accomplish. He has to hit better at Triple-A, and he has to get stronger. He has to do some things to mature into a Major League player."

It's a frustrating assessment for Walker to hear, particularly as he considers how quickly his window to start for the Pirates is shrinking. If LaRoche begins the season at the hot corner in Pittsburgh and top prospect Pedro Alvarez begins the year at third for Indianapolis, where will that leave Walker, once one of the organization's more promising prospects?

It's a question that doesn't yet have a firm answer. As Walker noted, he can once again try to make the club as a third baseman despite the overwhelming odds against him, or he can try to make the team as a versatile utility player.

"I think going into Spring Training, I'd be shortchanging myself if I didn't consider myself an everyday third baseman," Walker said as the '09 season ended. "I'm going to work as hard as I can this offseason to put myself in the best possible position to do that and help this team win here. I have to go at it like I want to be an everyday third baseman, and if that's not the case, then hopefully, I can make this team at a different position. I feel like I'm athletic enough to do that."

Though he hasn't crouched behind the plate in the last three seasons, Walker could always transition back to his catching roots if needed. He's athletic enough, too, that a move to play first or a corner-outfield position could likely be done without much difficulty.

Huntington emphasized the organization remains committed to having Walker work solely as a third baseman. However, the GM didn't rule out the possibility of getting Walker familiar with some additional positions as soon as next year. By being able to play more positions, Walker obviously could become a more valuable asset.

"It could start in Spring Training," Huntington said. "Or if he doesn't make the club and goes to Triple-A, it could start there. That's not something that we would want to do at the Major League level. That may be a way for Neil to establish himself as a Major League player."

Walker has an option left, meaning that it would be no issue to send him to the Minors to begin the season.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.