First Pitch: The Case Against Extending Neil Walker

Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata to extensions. At the time there was talk that Neil Walker could also be a candidate to be extended, as the club was talking with him about the possibility. The two sides are still talking, and will enter this off-season with Walker qualifying for arbitration as a Super Two player.

Most players who sign extensions don’t sign the deal until they become arbitration eligible. So for Walker, that time would be now. He’s coming off a decent season where he hit for a .280 average, a .768 OPS, and posted a 3.3 WAR, while improving his defense at second base for the second year in a row. Despite Walker being one of the better hitters on the team, I don’t think I would extend him if I’m the Pirates.

First, while Walker is one of the better hitters on the team, that’s not saying much. He is a good player, but he gets elevated because of the talent level that has surrounded him the last few years. Walker came up with Pedro Alvarez and one year after Andrew McCutchen. Those two are potential impact players, while Walker is more a support player. That’s definitely not a bad thing. But it’s also not someone you rush to lock up to a long-term deal.

A big reason why I wouldn’t try for an extension in this case is due to Walker’s age. By the time he will be eligible for free agency, Walker will be 31 years old. An extension will buy out 1-2 years of free agency. This isn’t like Andrew McCutchen, where an extension buys out prime years 29-31. The Pirates already have most of Walker’s prime years under team control.

On a similar note, the Pirates have four years of control remaining with Walker. That’s four years to develop a replacement, or find one via trade. By that time, they could be looking at a middle infield of Alen Hanson and Dilson Herrera. Or perhaps someone we’re not even considering right now. Four years ago we wouldn’t have predicted Walker would be the long-term second baseman. Sure, there were some on message boards who wondered if he could move to second with Pedro Alvarez and Andy LaRoche in the system at third base. But he was also coming off a year where he hit for a .242/.280/.414 line in Triple-A.

One positive for an extension is that it could bring cost certainty. But the Pirates already have that with their biggest paid player in Andrew McCutchen. Walker’s numbers have been pretty consistent, and he wouldn’t see a huge spike in salary going year to year. The Pirates also have a lot of league minimum guys expected to come up during the heavy lifting years for Walker, McCutchen, and Alvarez. So the cost certainty isn’t a huge benefit, since the Pirates will be able to afford Walker going year to year.

I feel that if Walker were from California, rather than Pittsburgh, the extension topic wouldn’t be discussed as much. Walker’s value to the team gets falsely elevated because he’s a hometown guy. An extension would just get Walker for ages 31-32. There’s a chance he could be on the downside of his career by that point. The Pirates have some second base possibilities in the minors. They have plenty of time to develop one of those in to a replacement. If Walker ended up accepting a team friendly deal it would be one thing, but other than that I don’t see a reason to extend him.

Links and Notes

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 Off-Season Contract Issues and Projections.

**The Atlanta Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Wild Card game. When the extra Wild Card spot was announced, I felt it was more a spectacle than something that could help additional teams make the playoffs. It created manufactured drama by having the entire season for two teams come down to one game. It would have been better to have six teams in the playoffs. The first round would play a best of three series. The winners would advance to the division series, where the top two teams had byes. From there, the playoffs would advance in a normal fashion. The end result is that you add two extra days to the playoffs, give one additional team a shot, and give those teams a somewhat real shot, rather than letting the randomness of one game decide the entire season.

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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  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    The biggest reason not to extend him, I feel is health. Disk problems in the back aren’t something that’s cured with 100% success rates. It could very well be from his playing catcher for years. Usually degenerative without surgery. I don’t think he’d be a risk of getting fat and happy like Tabata, at least.

    • Lee Young

      Lower disk problems, albeit minor (per my orth doctor) ended my running and basketball refereeing career.

      • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

        I hated running as a youth, no need to do it when you are older! :)

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

          I hear that and I just turned 25. lol. Running isn’t much of an option for me anymore. When you dislocate your knee caps so many times you can’t keep track anymore, and the doctors decide to keep them together with screws…I found out even jogging to stay in shape for baseball was a little much. Then again, I was always a huge fan of the joke about 60 times for left handed pitchers…..the punch line was something like, as long as you finish, you’re good to go.

  • RandyLinville

    Tim – do you know the date that Walker was officially diagnosed with a herniated disc? I don’t think I’ve seen the ‘when’ part of the who, what, why, when, where and how report of his back problems.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t remember the exact date. He played with it for a few games.

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

        They were very secretive, I think. It was almost like he was playing for the Penguins for a while. I hadn’t heard about anything “disc” related until a few days ago.

  • matskralc

    One thing to keep in mind is that while Walker is only a good hitter compared to the rest of the team, he is also a good hitter compared to the population of major league second basemen. Walker’s wRC+ was 7th among all MLB 2B with 300 PA this season, 13th in 2011, and 7th in 2010. 2B with a career wRC+ of 108 don’t grow on trees.

    2B has become a very weak-hitting position. Only SS posted a worse OPS this season.

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

    I think I agree with Tim’s overall assessment. I just don’t think there’s any reason to rush it for numerous reasons. One is the age factor, next injury, then potential depth. If he really wants to be a career Pirate, then I don’t think that will necessarily change in his mind over the next couple years. It’s not as if he won’t be getting paid a reasonable amount via arbitration or one year deals from here on out. Getting attached to marginal players via sentimentality was something the fan base was very much guilty of in the Freddy Sanchez/Jack Wilson days. We should all get attached to winning and the idea of winning first and foremost.

  • http://twitter.com/Jcsteel Jim C

    Right let’s worry about Walker’s possible contract (and one of the few REAL MLB players on the team) instead of writing about when the Pirates are actually going to put a winning product on the field. Good job, good effort Tim. Front Office probably can’t wait to figure out who will replace Walker, its all part of the “PROCESS”

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I’ve covered that topic plenty. I think it’s possible to talk about other topics as well.

  • Tom

    Walker is one of the better 2B in the game, local kid, fan favorite, switch hitter and more than a role player. Great writing but I don’t agree with your assessment of Walker. Whether we sign him or not, he is a big part of the team moving forward.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I think he’s slightly above average, but not one of the top guys in the league. Considering they have him for four more years, there’s not a big need to extend him.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-YaZhynka/100000448392567 Richard Ya’Zhynka

      The fact that Walker is from Pittsburgh and is a fan favorite should have no impact on the Pirates evaluation of him. Any contract offer must be based entirely on the Pirates assessment of how well Walker will produce on the field. He is a little better than average at the plate and a little below average at second.

  • maguro

    Agreed on all counts. Tabata’s performance (or lack thereof) illustrates the downside of locking up arbitration-eligible players. Once you buy out a guy’s arbitration years, you have to pay him, whether he performs or not.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: No, disagree. The Bucs have to wrap up a solid core to build with and have them 5, 6, or 7 years into the future. I think Neil would sign a long term contract similar in years to the one ‘Cutch signed, but for less dollars overall. Some folks who inhabit 2B and what they will make in 2013 – Phillips $12 mil, Pedroia $10 mil, Uggla $13 mil, Weeks $10 mil, Kendrick $8.75 mil. Neil has been excellent on defense and, IMO, should have been the Gold Glove pick in 2011 instead of Phillips. His bat has been steady and I like him to increase the HR production to 15-20/year, and he seems to be very consistent with RBI’s. A good kid, a local kid, and probably a solid citizen and positive clubhouse influence. Something for 6 years + a year or two of Club Options in the vicinity of $33 to $38 mil.

  • James S

    I’d lock him up for the simple reason that the front office has no ability whatsoever to bring in good hitters from without. If a proven good hitter becomes available, they hem & haw until he is no longer available (Chase Headley) and instead throw their chips at unproven players like Travis Snider.

    At least Walker is above average. They cannot aquire above average players otherwise.

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

      The entire point to the argument was that it’s very possible they’d have better internal options by the time Walker is 31 and finally becomes a free agent. Tim didn’t make any mention of finding other options outside of the organization to replace him.

      I agree though, why not Headly, I mean he’s not an outfielder, but I’m sure adding him at the cost of Cole or Taillon plus a few players would have sured up what was a terrible starting rotation. One player was really the difference between a .275 and .600 winning %.

  • emjayinTN

    Chase Headley did not throw a pitch this year and the primary reason for the downfall in 2012 was that the ERA went up by almost a full run after the All Star Break. And, Headley is still in SD because they raised the asking price to try to get another deal similar to the one they got from Cincy for Mat Latos. One hitter was not going to make that much of a difference – in a few years, maybe, but not in 2012.