Should the Pirates Extend Neil Walker?

Should the Pirates extend Neil Walker?

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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • solonslo

    Your analysis is spot on, and that’s too bad, because he is the Pittsburgh Kid. Furthermore, the emotional connection of his Dad with Clemente’s heroic flight/death just makes you want to root for this kid. His work with Maz, and Maz playing all those years with Clemente. I know it’s a business, sabermetrics rule, but damn it, the team and fans need some feel warm and fuzzy stuff too! Neal and Neil get with it and make it a reasonable deal. Walker’s utility {2B-3B-CA} makes him valuable going forward, even off the bench.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=72405411 Ian Rothermund

    I think that this season will be huge in ultimately proving or disproving those sentiments towards Walker.  If he can show even better defensive capabilities and consistently show up at the plate, then maybe the tone of this article changes a bit. 

    I also think that the player attachment issues that Pirate-nation has dealt with in the last decade or so needs to be addressed.  I really like Walker, and I hope he’s the real deal.  However, beyond this being a business, it’s a game, and the point of playing a game is to win.  This isn’t a 6-year old soccer league, it’s professional sports.  Maybe it’s time for Pirate’s fans to get attached to notching some W’s. 

    Then again, it’s quite possible that the lack of winning over this long stretch of time has resulted in the fans needing to hold on to something, and the play definitely hasn’t been capable of supporting that need.  If we start getting into that consistent 80-90 win mark over a few seasons, people will care considerably less about individual players and considerably more about sustaining that.

  • leadoff

    I have to disagree, I think there are players in there pipeline that can replace McCutchen or Walker, Hague never gets mentioned for anything, he can also play 3rd base, he does not have to be the second coming of Brooks Robinson to be affective. As a matter of fact if the phone rang tomorrow and someone offered a deal too good to pass up, I would trade McCutchen or Walker or anyone else the Pirates have, the idea should always be to make the team better, not stand pat.
    Marte, Bell, Grossman, Tabata, Presley, not a bad group to pick from, any three still makes a pretty good outfield.The quest for the power hitter or the perfect combo player at times leads us away from reality, the Pirates don’t have any super stars this year, but what they do have is a lot of good players and a lot of depth, cut down time should be interesting this year.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=72405411 Ian Rothermund

       I would say that Walker is definitely easier to replace than McCutchen.  There are some appealing prospects, yes, but this is exactly the kind of guy that the Pirates needed to sign long term.  Not only have they locked down a guy long-term that is a very talented young player, they’ve quieted detractors who rely on the argument that the Pirates are incapable of retaining quality players, while simultaneously being able to initiate a message to the rest of the league as well as future free agents that they aren’t a joke anymore….or at least approaching not being a joke.

      Yes, according to the Tampa model, this may not be the right move.  However, I would argue that signing McCutchen long-term does just as much off the field for the Pirates as it does on.  Maybe more.

  • piratemike

    There are people out there who still think the Pirates should have re-signed Bay , Nady ,LaRoche ,Sanchez and Wilson and then added a bunch of free agent pitchers. I trust the FO more than some fan out there to make business decisions.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JM25APDCPL5UXIFUFBUEUVUSVI Thom

    I completely agree with this analysis.  It’s also very unlikely that giving him a contract would do anything in the short term, since the archaic abitration system focuses on homeruns, RBI, and batting avg. For fielding, they’re often swayed by highlights, and he’s not that type of guy.

    We should save our money and see if he develops into something better, but all signs point to him being a solid but unspectacular 2B.

  • mikez09

    I was having this argument at my restaraunt yesterday and everyone thought i was crazy for suggesting the Pirates not extend Walker. I thought i was gonna be lynched for suggesting that 2nd baseman are a dime a dozen and Walker isn’t a star, just a solid average player. I totaly agree with everything you said in here Tim! That said, I really like Walker and think hes a great teammate and a leader but baseball is a business and we have several guys in the minors that by 2017 one of them should be able to step up!!!

    • mikez09

      BTW, I played 2nd base in college a long time ago, so no offense to the 2nd baseman of the world was meant by my “dime a dozen” comment. I just meant it is an easier position to fill then most….