Not too long ago, when the Yankees were teetering around the .500 mark, veteran infielder Neil Walker resembled an expendable piece on a young and crowded roster. Not too long ago, fans were calling for Walker to be designated for assignment.
But the 32-year-old wasn’t really given a fair shake in April. As a free agent who signed a one-year, $4 million in mid March, his spring training was brief and rushed, so it came as no surprise to see Walker struggle at the plate during the first few weeks of the season.
The Yankees’ front office understood this, and while touted rookies Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres burst onto the scene as the franchise’s future infielders, New York kept its leash long for Walker. He was offered sufficient playing time — an opportunity to demonstrate his playing ability on the field and share his wisdom off the field.
Suffice to say that the Yankees’ patience with Walker has yielded positive results.
Since the beginning of May, Walker has been one of the team’s hottest hitters. In 10 appearances this month, Walker is hitting .346 (9-for-26) with three doubles, eight walks, and four RBI. During the Yankees’ unconscious stretch of 17 wins in 19 games this past week, Walker contributed a handful of clutch at-bats, and on Saturday, he delivered a walkoff single in the 11th inning against the Oakland A’s.
“[Walker’s] the definition of a professional,” Aaron Judge told the New York Post. “He works his butt off, whether he’s at third base, first base or DH. When we need a big hit, he’s a guy we turn to.
“That guy could fit in anywhere, the way he is in the clubhouse.”
Every team needs a Swiss Army knife — a utility man capable of playing several positions. With the absence of Greg Bird, Walker has seen a large chunk of time at first base (21 games). And like Judge said, Walker is also competent at second and third base, if needed.
Walker has become more than a cog in the machine. He’s used to the twists and turns, the peaks and valleys that are associated with a baseball season. Although most of the young players on the Yankees’ roster have achieved early success, some are still getting acclimated to the big league lifestyle. That truth means there’s value in having a professional like Walker at one’s disposal.
“He’s a pro. He’s proven who he is throughout his career and that’s a guy who can hit,” Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone told the New York Daily News. “I get excited and I admire when guys handle adversity really well, which he always has. One thing that’s jumped out to me…I know what kind of player we were getting, but to be behind the scenes with him and see the kind of teammate he is. I talk to you guys all the time about what I love about these guys, and Neil is another of a long line in there of great teammates.
“When it wasn’t going great for him, nothing changed. Nothing changed in the person he was, the pro he was, and now that he’s having success and having some hands in victories, that makes me happy for him.”
Once Bird and third baseman Brandon Drury are activated from the disabled list some time this month, Boone and the Yankee brass will determine how — or if — Walker fits with the club. Based on Walker’s recent production and impact, however, it’s safe to assume that he isn’t going anywhere.
“You can’t get caught up in numbers or how things are going, but the fact of the matter is I know that good things are on the horizon for me,” Walker told the Daily News. “So I try not to put too much pressure on myself. Even in a game-winning situation, I just do what I can to try to put together a good at-bat. I think the longer you play, the more you’re in that situation, the more comfortable you are.”