Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Looks like MLB has buried an Ace

Top pitcher in Northern League last year gets no offers from Show

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He didn't get any interest from major league teams in the off-season, so Ace Walker will continue to finish what he started in Winnipeg.

Walker joined his Goldeyes teammates at Canwest Park Thursday morning, making the long, four-day, 30-hour drive up to Manitoba after celebrating his graduation from the University of Alabama last weekend.

The journey from Tuscaloosa, which included a tense, tornado watch-filled stop at home in Prague, Okla., was an arduous one, but the reigning Northern League pitcher of the year said his baseball dream is sill alive and as a result, the trip was one he knew he had to make.

This time around, though, Walker appears to have some extra motivation.

"You'd think getting pitcher of the year might turn some heads, but I didn't hear one word," said Walker, at a loss for why major league organizations didn't come calling after putting up one of the best seasons by a starter in Goldeyes history.

"I'm starting to think I'm blacklisted or something."

Consider his 2009 campaign: 12-6 with a 3.36 ERA in 21 starts last summer. Six of those resulted in complete games. The 27-year-old only gave up eight home runs, despite throwing 149 innings and to top it off, Walker was named by Baseball America to its All-Independent second team.

It was a season that was off the charts but such is the cruel business of independent minor league baseball. After spending four years in affiliated ball Walker puts together two terrific summers with the Goldeyes, showing his ceiling continues to go up with each outing, and no MLB organization bothers to pick up the phone and check up on him.

There are reasons for the snub, however.

First off is his age. Right-handers are a dime a dozen and when a pitcher is on the back end of his 20s, teams tend to look right past you.

Second, and Walker readily admits this, is that the velocity just isn't there from the right arm of his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame. He doesn't have the lights out fastball and rarely is able to blow a fastball by hitters.

Finally, he doesn't fit the standards of what affiliated teams are looking for. They have the prototypical pitcher in mind and if a player doesn't fit the profile, he's not even considered.

Walker can still get hitters out with a low and away pitch on the edge of the plate that he's been able to consistently throw in two seasons with the Fish, but that doesn't seem to be what MLB teams are looking for anymore.

"Greg Maddux did it for years, but I think the days of Greg Maddux in the big leagues are over," he said. "Hitters are so good, so disciplined (now)."

If you recall, Maddux had this habit of going deep into games, earning the trust of his manager to get out of trouble spots in the later innings. Goldeyes manager Rick Forney sees his starter that way, adding that Walker is quickly becoming an endangered species on the minor league hill.

Back in the day, most starters would have to be dragged off the mound by the manager when things weren't looking favourable on the scoreboard but nowadays, as the charts and pitch counts start to become the rule, some pitchers look to the manager to take them out at the midway point of the game, feeling like their effort is a job well done.

"They're satisfied with the five- or six-inning start, as long as their ERA is favourable," Forney said. "Ace is the kind (of pitcher) who wants to stick around and try to finish every game he can. Guys who like to finish don't care what that chart says."

Unfortunately for Walker and his prospects of getting back to affiliated ball, ignoring the chart isn't on the chart.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Fish wrap

 

On deck: The Goldeyes make their home debut with the start the first of four exhibition games against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks at Canwest Park tonight (7 p.m., 1290 CFRW). Tickets start at $5 and are available at the ballpark. Winnipeg has only been able to play two pre-season games this spring due to inclement weather. The Fish and Hawks play again Saturday before shifting the series to North Dakota Sunday and Monday.

Quotable: "Obviously I still got a big decision to make behind the plate. I have an outfield situation that hasn't taken care of itself just yet, and there's a pitching question that I need to answer." -- Goldeyes manager Rick Forney, commenting on the evaluation value of the coming games.

Quotable Part 2: "I guess I'm doing everything possible not to have a 9-to-5 job." -- right-hander Ace Walker on his love of art and baseball. The 27-year-old, who arrived in Winnipeg Wednesday night, just graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in graphic design.

Extra work: Judging by the numbers taking grounders in the infield Thursday, it's apparent the shine of training camp has not worn off yet. At third base, as many as five players were fielding practice balls in hopes of not only softening up the hands but also catching Forney's eye.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2010 C4

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