Neil Walker back in starting lineup for first time since August 26

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The Pirates’ recent collapse has been pretty depressing to watch, but there is some good news to report this morning.

According to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Neil Walker is back in the Pirates’ starting lineup this afternoon against the Cubs after missing 16 straight starts due to lower back tightness. He struck out as a pinch-hitter yesterday in his first game action since August 26.

The Pirates went 4-12 with Walker out of the lineup and have lost seven in a row to fall to 72-71 on the year. They’ll open today’s action three games behind the Cardinals in the Wild Card race with 19 games to play. Postseason aspirations aside, avoiding a 20th straight losing season is suddenly looking dicey.

Walker, 27, is batting .280/.341/.434 with 14 home runs, 69 RBI and a .775 OPS in 122 games played this season.

Kyle Schwarber is “probably, arguably” in The Best Shape of His Life

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Joe Maddon just held his annual media availability here at the Winter Meetings. During the scrum he said that Kyle Schwarber “looked great the other day” at a Cubs community event and that . . . wait for it . . . “he’s in, probably, arguably in the best shape of his life.” Maddon went on to say that, if Schwarber looks good in spring training, he might even be the Cubs leadoff hitter in 2018.

Schwarber is only 24, but the former catcher turned outfielder is going to spend most of his career as a DH, with another team obviously, unless he shows the Cubs that he can be a regular defender. The Cubs would love to see him in better shape whether they keep him or shop him, and if it’s the latter, they’ll want to show potential trade partners that he can play defense so as not to limit his market. It’s in everyone’s interests for him to be lean, mean and a bit more flexible once spring training starts.

To that end, according to a recent report, Schwarber “has been on a mission this offseason to transform his body.” And now Maddon is playing up the BSOHL angle. Whether that’s salesmanship or not, all eyes are going to be on Schwarber come February.