Now that Andrew McCutchen has been signed to a long-term deal, everyone seems to be weighing in on whether the Pittsburgh Pirates should extend second baseman Neil Walker.
In 2009 the Pirates called up Andrew McCutchen mid-season. He was their first big prospect to arrive during the new management group’s rebuilding process. The next summer the Pirates were set to see their first wave of top prospects arrive. Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Brad Lincoln all made the jump to the majors that summer, with the Pirates hoping they’d join McCutchen to provide a core to build around.
The results for those four players have been mixed. Walker, Tabata, and Alvarez had decent results in 2010. Then Walker and Tabata faced inconsistencies in 2011, while Alvarez completely bombed. Lincoln struggled in 2010, but had good results in 2011 at the end of the season with the Pirates.
The Pirates extended Tabata through the 2019 season in August 2011. They just extended McCutchen through the 2018 season. It wouldn’t make sense to extend Pedro Alvarez after the season he just had, although he would be unlikely to sign such an extension being a Scott Boras client. Brad Lincoln also doesn’t make sense for an extension since he’s not locked in to a big league spot.
That leaves Neil Walker, who is locked in as the starting second baseman.
Walker is under team control through the 2016 season. He becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after the 2012 season, and will be eligible four times due to being a Super Two player. Without an extension, Walker would be slated to leave two years prior to McCutchen and three years prior to Tabata. This raises the question as to whether the Pirates need to extend Walker to match him up with the other extensions.
McCutchen would have been eligible for free agency after the age of 28 prior to his extension. The extension keeps him under team control through the age of 31, capturing his prime years. Tabata would have been eligible after the age of 27 prior to his extension. He’s now eligible after the age of 30, also getting his prime years under team control. Walker is not in the same boat. He will be 31 years old when he becomes eligible for free agency following the 2016 season. The Pirates already have him under control for what would be his prime years.
The argument in favor of Walker looks at his value in comparison to other second basemen. Walker had the ninth highest WAR among 18 qualified second basemen in 2011. That was despite a drop in his offensive numbers, going from an .811 OPS in 2010 to a .742 OPS in 2011. He was below average defensively, but made big strides from 2010 to 2011 at the position.
Walker moved to second base at the start of the 2010 season, so there’s a reason his defense has struggled. The fact that he made such big strides in 2011 is encouraging. If he can continue making big strides, and/or return to his 2010 numbers, he would further improve his value, making him one of the better second basemen in the game.
The problem with this line of thought is the timing. Andrew McCutchen is a little over a year younger than Walker, and he’s already established. Like Walker, Jose Tabata is yet to be established, although he’s two years younger than Walker. So not only is Walker a mystery at this point, he’s also older than Tabata and McCutchen, and he’s entering his prime years. That reduces the odds that he will emerge as a top second baseman.
The issue really isn’t about whether Walker profiles as a top second baseman. It’s more about how easy it would be for the Pirates to replace him. The Pirates don’t have a standout option in the minor league system, although several players are candidates to emerge and provide the same value as Walker. Brock Holt has speed, hits for average, and has the defense to handle shortstop. Jarek Cunningham has a lot of power for a middle infielder, but struggles with his plate patience, and isn’t strong defensively. If Jordy Mercer doesn’t make it as a shortstop, he could be Cunningham, only with better defense at second and better plate patience.
Then there’s the wild cards. Gift Ngoepe plays great defense, has a ton of speed, and has been hitting well in the last year. Adalberto Santos had a great season in Bradenton, although he’s a college player playing in A-ball, which means the Pirates would need to see that production in the upper levels before taking him seriously. Drew Maggi could play shortstop, but wouldn’t be a bad defensive option at second. He also has a lot of speed and profiles as a top of the order type guy.
The Walker situation is different from McCutchen’s situation. McCutchen was already one of the top players in the game. Even if the Pirates see other outfielders emerge, they’re unlikely to get to a point where McCutchen would be their fourth best outfielder. The Pirates have Walker under control for five more seasons. That’s a lot of time to find a replacement for the 2017 season. That’s enough time to allow someone like Alen Hanson to make his way from short season ball to the majors. So the urgency to extend Walker shouldn’t be the same as McCutchen.
There’s only three ways the Pirates should consider extending Walker. The first is if he takes a very team friendly deal, similar to the deal Jose Tabata signed with the team. The second is if he has a breakout season in 2012. An extension in this case would cost more than it would if the Pirates extended Walker right now, although the added security that comes with that added cost is a great thing. The third way is if Walker is needed at another position, specifically third base.
If Pedro Alvarez has another horrible season, and Casey McGehee doesn’t bounce back to his pre-2011 numbers, the Pirates will be in trouble at third base. There aren’t any prospects on the horizon that profile as starting third basemen. Yamaico Navarro could be a possibility, but he’s far from a guaranteed answer. The best choice outside of Alvarez and McGehee would be Walker.
When Walker played third base he had strong defense. Combine his defense with his current offensive production and you could have a third baseman similar to Martin Prado. With no other third base options on the horizon, it would make sense to extend Walker should the Pirates opt to go with him in the event that Alvarez and McGehee fail.
But that’s a situation where you wait and see what happens. It’s also a situation that requires Walker to add some consistency to his hitting.
A Walker extension seems unnecessary at this point. He’s a good second baseman, but it’s not really about how he compares to the rest of the league. It’s about how the Pirates could replace him. You can’t replace Andrew McCutchen that easily. On the other hand, the Pirates could conceivably add a suitable replacement for Walker between now and the end of the 2016 season. This probably wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that Walker is a Pittsburgh native.
If Walker shows some major improvement this year, then the Pirates should definitely work to extend him. If he takes a team friendly deal like Tabata took, giving up free agent years in the form of option years, then the Pirates should go for it. But otherwise it doesn’t make sense to tie up money on a guy when you’ve got five years and a very realistic chance to develop someone who is just as good, only at a much cheaper price.