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
**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.