Pirates second baseman Walker shifting focus from contract negotiations to season



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BRADENTON, Florida — The unfailingly polite Neil Walker has been asked about his contract status for most of spring training, to the point where the second baseman thinks it's counterproductive to talk about it.

"It's time to think about the season," the Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman said this week. "That's the focus now."

The Pirates open the season April 6 at Cincinnati against the Reds and it appears contract talks between the team and the popular Pittsburgh-area native who was their first-round draft pick in 2004 have been put on hold.

The sides could not agree on a deal in the offseason and went to an arbitration hearing, which the Pirates won. Walker will have an $8.5-million salary this season and remains eligible to become a free agent after next season.

"You have to kind of separate the financial part from the game of baseball itself and try to remove the emotional and the personal side of things," said Walker, who is the Pirates' player representative to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

"It's a growing experience, and it's something that a lot of guys go through when you get to this point in your career. But to have it behind me and to be focusing on the 2015 season and the Pittsburgh Pirates is something that I'm very happy about right now."

Walker grew up in the North Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh rooting for the Pirates. He says he has no desire to leave.

"My dream and my focus has been from day one to be in a Pirate uniform my entire career and that's still the case," Walker said. "I still hope that something can possibly get done, but it's also a very different time in my career where we're trying to work through some things and see if something can get done."

The 29-year-old switch-hitter is coming off his best season in which he hit .271 with 23 home runs in 137 games, playing a key role as the Pirates reached the postseason for the second year in a row following a run of 20 consecutive losing seasons.

Walker certainly doesn't seem distracted by his contract situation. He has gone 12-for-34 (.353) in exhibition play with five doubles and one home run.

"He's finding the outfield grass with some balls, he's spraying the ball over the field. I'm happy with what I'm seeing from him," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Walker, too, is happy with his spring after arriving in mid-January to begin preparation for what will be his seventh season with the Pirates.

"My focus is on helping the team win a World Series," Walker said. "I'm really excited about the team we have and we what we can be capable of doing this season."

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