NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A "best shape of his life" alert to perk one's ears: That's what Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said about Neil Walker, and it's very significant considering the second baseman's 2012 season was shut down due to a herniated disk.According to the GM, Walker "is getting close to getting into his [regular] offseason routine after a great rehab program." "The rehab went really well, and he's worked his tail off and looks forward to coming into Spring Training in the best shape of his life." Dinged by a dislocated right little finger shortly before the more enfeebling back issue, Walker had only 52 at-bats after Aug. 15. "He's done with all the medical recovery," said manager Clint Hurdle, an offseason Pittsburgh resident who has kept in closer contact with the player. "Within the last two weeks, he actually started his strength and conditioning program. I had lunch with him right before that. He's in a very good place, ready to go."
Hurdle coincidentally revealed that coach Mark Strittmatter has left the staff to take a job as a roving coordinator with the Rockies. Among his duties, Strittmatter had been the Pirates' unofficial assistant coach -- a position they will soon fill formally, joining a growing trend in the Majors. The aide to new hitting coach Jay Bell will not be on the bench during games, but be available in the video room or at the indoor cages. The Pirates talent mavens here know there are quite a few available players whom they like in Thursday morning's Rule 5 Draft -- they just don't know whether any of them will still be on the board when it is their turn to select at No. 13. "There are some upside guys you look at and go, 'Wow, it's surprising he wasn't protected.' Maybe there are more of those guys this year than in the last few," Huntington said. The Bucs are about to rein in Starling Marte, who is batting a robust .317 with 19 RBIs in 26 games as Escogido's No. 3 hitter in the Dominican Winter League. DWL watchers described Marte as "a man among prospects." The club wants the outfielder to have some quality down-time before Spring Training, and will tell him to shut it down "sooner rather than later," said Huntington, adding, "He never wants to stop playing and feels an obligation to play down there. But we've got to protect him."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.