Frustrated Walker Leaves Venezuela

Outfielder Chris Walker had Georgia on his mind even before he got word that he was heading back to his Atlanta area home for at least the next three weeks.

Walker was placed on the 21-day disabled list last week after batting .225 in 37 games for team Caribes of the Venezuelan Winter League. The 26-year-old suffered a contusion on his right wrist after being plunked by a pitch from right-hander Paul Bush in a game against team Leones on Oct .31.

Now, Walker is back home in Alpharetta, Ga., where he'll spend the next several weeks and decide whether or not to return to Venezuela. The switch-hitting outfielder signed a contract with the league through Dec. 30.

"Things just didn't go my way," Walker said of playing in Venezuela. "I continued to play through the injury, but I wasn't playing at the level I was capable of, and my numbers showed it."

Walker was batting .295 at the time of the injury, but saw his average drop in large part because of the injury's lingering effects on his swing.

"After getting hit, it really changed things for me," Walker explained. "I couldn't get the bat through the zone the way I was used to. I lost bat speed and I developed bad habits. Instead of relying on my hands for an inside pitch, I would start swinging and became more susceptible to the outside pitches and breaking balls."

Walker's injury was enough to force the Caribes team to place him on the disabled list, but Walker says the move was predicated largely because of his club's need for pitching.

Ironically, the same thing happened to Walker a year ago while playing Winter Ball in Mexico. He says Venezuelan League officials had hoped he would return to finish out his contract with the Caribes team, but that the break was much needed from both a physical and mental standpoint.

Whether or not Walker decides to rejoin the team is completely up to him. The Cubs have no bearing on his decision since Walker's contract to play Winter Ball is with the Venezuelan League and not his parent club.

"It's still up in the air," Walker said of possibly returning to the league. "Right now, I just want a break. I've been going full blast since February. To have a mental and physical break right now is huge. A lot of people have no idea of the importance of the off-season. I'm really starting to understand that importance. At the end of some of the games, I had no energy left."

At the time of his departure from Venezuela, Walker led the league with 17 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He got off to a fast start by picking up three multi-hit games in his first three starts with the Caribes team. He started all but one game in center field.

By the time Walker was eventually placed on the disabled list, however, the frustrations were beginning to mount. He wasn't getting quite as many at-bats as he had previously and would go days in between starts during certain intervals.

"I didn't understand what was going on and nobody told me why I wasn't playing," Walker said. "In that part, it was very frustrating. Instead of me being there loud and enthusiastic, there was a part of me that said if I wasn't playing, why was I here? I wasn't there to work on my defense."

What Walker was there to work on was actually one of the better aspects of his game: his hitting.

The Cubs' sixth-round pick from the 2002 draft out of Georgia Southern University has batted .280 or better during each of the past three seasons after struggling with the bat as strictly a right-handed hitter prior to making the transition to switch-hitting in 2003.

"I was there to hit and play against some good competition," Walker affirmed. "That wasn't happening and nobody was saying anything to me. I worked on my bunting some, but the thing was, word spread pretty quickly about me. When I would try to bunt a ball, guys would play so far in that no matter what I put down, it was an out.

"I worked on my pitch selection, my plan at the plate, and just finding a way to get on base," Walker said.

Of course, as any player who's ever played in Venezuela and similar venues will tell you, Winter Ball is much more than a mere opportunity to pick up extra at-bats.

Baseball has long been one of the country's most well-loved and fiery customs. Any notion that teams in the league weren't serious about winning was quickly put to rest when the Caribes team canned manager Luis Durante just a few days into the season after getting off to a slow start.

Players that participate in the league often play in front of crowds in excess of 20,000 fans each night.

"Every game is the seventh game of the World Series," Walker said of the experience. "Every pitch is a full count with the bases loaded and the fans are just really into the game."

So in spite of what might otherwise appear to be a sour experience from the onset, it's not something that will make Walker think twice about playing Winter Ball in the future.

"I would definitely go back, maybe to a different team" he said. "Usually when guys don't play, they tell you right away that they're going to send you home. If it had been brought up to me like that, I would have been completely fine with it. It wasn't handled that way."

Walker hopes to fight for a spot on the Cubs' major league roster next spring if he's invited to camp. First, there's the Rule Five Draft to contend with.

Walker is one of over 40 Cubs minor leaguers currently exposed to the draft and will be watching and waiting anxiously to see if a team ponies up the interest in trying to work him onto their 25-man roster for next season when the draft is held later this week.

"Having played against some guys that are in the big leagues now, I think I've shown that I can play at that next level," said Walker, who is coming off his finest season to date in which he batted .292 in 131 games at Double-A West Tenn and was named to his third consecutive all-star game.

"Usually a lot of pitchers are taken, but I've been told position players with speed have been taken. I can be a Dave Roberts when he was with the Red Sox and come in and steal a base. It will be interesting to see what happens. I'm not getting my hopes up, because it's something I can't control. I'm going to train and go about my business the same way," Walker said.

Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita believes that speed is what makes players like Walker hard to come by.

"He's got a tool you can't teach and that's speed," Fleita said of Walker, who has stolen 170 bases the past three seasons. "That never slumps. Having learned to switch hit, he's really progressed since we signed him."


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