The new Pujols? Walker's forcing the comparison

With 2-HR game, MLB's No. 4 prospect continues his charge to leap from Double-A to Majors

March 5th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol didn’t join the Cardinals’ organization until 2007. But through the years, he has heard numerous stories of the 2001 Spring Training when a then-21-year-old Albert Pujols literally hit his way onto the MLB roster and didn’t stop until he had 703 career home runs some 21 years later.

Fast forward to Spring Training 2023. And if Marmol squints his eyes, tilts his head just so and allows his imagination to run rampant, he just might be seeing a second coming of that legendary Pujols performance from two decades earlier in the hulking silhouette of 6-foot-5, 250-pound slugger .

Walker, 20, grew his legend as a phenom even more on Saturday when he smashed two eye-popping home runs -- one a towering shot approximated at 470 feet and a second laser that left the bat at 115 mph by some estimates -- while also doubling, legging out an infield single, driving in three runs and scoring three times.

In just six Spring Training games, Walker is more than living up to the hype of being MLB’s No. 4-ranked prospect and the Cardinals’ No. 1, per MLB Pipeline. All he has done is go 9-for-18 with three home runs, three doubles, two infield singles and six RBIs. He’s slugging at a 1.167 clip, and his OPS is an absurd 1.667 over a small sample size.

Even for a player who has yet to make his MLB debut, what Walker is doing is … Pujolsian? Much like Pujols in 2001 -- when he slugged his way onto the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster and never looked back en route to a likely first-ballot Hall of Fame career -- Walker seems to be getting closer to the Majors with each epic clout.

“Sometimes players force your hand, and that’s a beautiful thing,” Marmol said, referring to what Pujols did and what Walker is doing. “I love the mentality of a player coming in, and his objective is to do exactly that [force his way onto the Opening Day roster].”

Walker put on a show that featured a little bit of everything from his five-tool arsenal in the Cardinals’ 9-6 defeat of the Nationals. Batting second a day after leading off and registering two hits, Walker used his surprising speed to leg out an infield single in the first. Two innings later, he hit a 2-2 pitch from Cade Cavalli not only over the 388-foot mark in left-center, but well beyond the grassy berm and one hop off the concession stand past the batter’s eye. The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is not wired with ball-tracking equipment, but Cardinals staffers estimated the blast at 470 feet.

“No, not even close, I don’t think,” Walker said sheepishly when asked if he had hit a homer that far before. “I knew it was gone, but I didn’t know how far it would go. I knew the wind was blowing out, so I got lucky.”

Later, after his double set the stage for Nolan Gorman’s two-run blast, Walker did more damage to get the pro-Cardinals crowd roaring with raw emotion. Walker didn’t miss a two-strike fastball from Washington’s Chad Kuhl, and his line-drive homer wound up halfway up the berm.

Said Nationals manager Dave Martinez: “You can’t make a mistake. You make a mistake, he’ll smoke you.”

The mistakes Walker has been smoking thus far are the products of intense work he put in over the winter to ready himself for a training camp battle with incumbent outfielders Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson. He has even surprised himself with being able to adapt to MLB pitching so quickly.

“I worked really hard in the offseason, and there were a lot of things I did differently with a lot of one-on-one work with the coaches,” said Walker, who starred in the Arizona Fall League and also drilled near his suburban Atlanta home. “I had a [friend] who had a facility where I could hit as much as I wanted. I’ve taken it to a different level because this Spring Training means a lot.”

The jolt of power Walker has provided means a lot to a Cardinals franchise desperately hoping to be a serious World Series contender again. Whether or not Walker will successfully jump from Double-A Springfield to the MLB roster -- much the way Pujols did in 2001 -- remains to be seen. But he is certainly making the kind of power-packed splash not seen from a Cards phenom in more than two decades.

“I don’t know what the tipping point is, but he’s continuing to show he’s capable,” Marmol said. “We went into this camp saying there is going to be real competition and that’s what he is making this -- a real competition. He’s come in ready, and I’m enjoying watching it.”