Neil Walker wiled away the winter months of 2018 waiting and wondering why his phone wasn’t ringing.
A switch-hitting infielder with a rich big-league background, Walker seemed certain to land a job with some team that admired his body of work, which included a Silver Slugger Award, playoff experience and more than 130 home runs at a multitude of positions. But as January stretched into February, the phone remained silent.
It wasn’t until March, in the middle of spring training, that the New York Yankees finally signed him.
That late start, Walker said, precipitated what he called “the worst month-and-a-half of my entire career.”
Not wishing to go through that again, Walker on Tuesday signed a one-year deal with the Marlins for $2 million.
“I know that, going through last year, trying to prepare for a Major League season in March, was something I was not interested in doing again,” Walker said. “We had a lot of communication (with other interested teams). But everybody was playing the wait-and-see game. I had communication with teams that were potentially in on Manny Machado and teams waiting to see where the market was going on the top end.”
Rather than continue the wait, Walker agreed to join a rebuilding Marlins team that many expect to finish last in the National League East.
“I know as a player it was very frustrating last year to go through what I went through,” Walker said. “I know that sitting around on March 10 and not being able to get the quality amount of work that comes along with spring training was really detrimental to the first month and a half of my season.”
Walker hit just .165 in April, .063 in June, and was sitting at .197 at the All-Star break. A career .268 hitter, he finished the season with a .219 batting average.
The Marlins are banking on a rebound from the 10-year major-league veteran. Michael Hill, Marlins president of baseball operations, said the plan is to use Walker primarily in a platoon at first base with Peter O’Brien. But given his versatility, Walker should see plenty of playing time at other positions. He has also played at second, third and in the outfield.
Walker sees the Marlins situation as an opportunity, drawing on his experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the start of the decade.
“I think more than anything, my time in Pittsburgh will really serve me well,” said Walker, who was with the Pirates from 2009 to 2015 before going to the Mets. “2010, ‘11 and ‘12 in Pittsburgh was almost identical with what’s going on last year and this year in Miami. And that’s built around a young group of guys. There’s going to be a lot of road bumps with a young team. I think I can help from the experience standpoint, from a standpoint of focusing on the preparation and work that goes into becoming quality players.”
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