Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates learn to roll with changes

BRADENTON — Hours before Sean Burnett jogged in from the bullpen, Neil Walker scooped grounders near third base.

There was a time when neither player imagined they would be where they were Monday at McKecnhie Field.

But both have grown accustomed to their roles. After all, Burnett and Walker, both first-round draft picks, are still playing baseball and are still part of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ plans.

They’re just in different spots. An All-America catcher in high school, Walker was switched to third base during the spring of 2007. Burnett was a starter before appearing in 58 games as a reliever last year, a role he’ll occupy for the remainder of his career.

It’s taken some getting used to. Both, however, have learned to roll with the changes.

“I try not to think about it too much, but it does come up from time to time,” Walker said before the Pirates’ 15-14 loss to the Boston Red Sox, “how different things would be now, as opposed to when I was catching. Obviously, I don’t dwell on any of the changes, and I’m happy with the way things have gone.”

Walker, the 11th overall pick in 2004, was moved 90 feet up the third-base line because the Pirates didn’t think they’d be able to hold on to third baseman Jose Bautista.

They were right — Bautista was shipped to the Toronto Blue Jays last year.

Walker made 27 errors combined in Double-A and Triple-A in 2007 but was named the International League’s best defensive third baseman last year by Baseball America.

“I was trying to be perfect at third base — ‘What am I going to do on this play and this play,’ and that really took its toll,” he said. “Now, put yourself in the position. And I already trust my ability and my actions at third base, and let my natural ability take over.”

The Pirates forced Walker to deal with another curveball last July when they acquired another young third baseman, Andy LaRoche, in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It was somewhat frustrating. They felt like they wanted to get some good young players in the system, and I’m happy they did that,” said Walker, who hit his third double of the spring Monday. “But I obviously believe in myself enough that I can play at the major-league level, and obviously, he does as well. Something’s going to have to give at some point, and I’m open to any options. But I hope there’s room for both of us here, because I believe we can both help this team win.”

Burnett, a Dunedin native, was taken 19th overall by Pittsburgh in 2000. He made more than 100 starts for the organization, including 13 with the big club in 2004, before missing the entire ’05 season recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.

His days as a starter were done, and last year marked Burnett’s first when he was used exclusively as a reliever.

“The basic thing for me was getting over the question marks,” Burnett said, “pitching back-to-back days, or getting (warmed) up in the fourth or fifth, sitting down, and throwing again in the seventh.”

But after the Pirates wrapped their schedule last September in San Diego, Burnett breathed a sigh of relief. He appeared in nearly 60 games, logged 56 2/3 innings — and his arm felt fine.

“The whole last year, I was waiting for the day when my arm was going to hurt and I was going to go on the (disabled list),” said Burnett, who allowed a home run in one inning Monday. “But on the flight back from San Diego last year, I was like ... ‘I did it.’ So I got to relax, and there were no injury problems or thoughts like that in my mind any more.”

Walker grew up catching. Burnett was hoping to become one of baseball’s better left-handed starters.

For a variety of reasons, neither saw his vision come to completion.

So both have carved out new ones.

“I’m still playing baseball, so I guess that’s the key,” Burnett said. “Things could always be a lot worse.”

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