First Pitch: There is No Need to Extend Neil Walker

There is no need to extend Neil Walker. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

There is no need to extend Neil Walker. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

One thing I’ve never understood is the desire to see extensions and free agent years bought out for every single player. I understand it when it comes to guys like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, or Gerrit Cole, as those could be impact talents. I don’t understand the thinking for guys who just profile to be role players on the roster.

Each off-season the extension wish lists begin. Whether it’s in the comments here, on Twitter or Facebook, or in other articles or sites, I’ve already seen a few players mentioned this year on fan wish lists. Francisco Liriano. Pedro Alvarez. Charlie Morton. And then there’s the annual “extend Neil Walker” campaign.

I think Walker is a good player. As I mentioned earlier today in the 2013 second base recap, Walker’s .757 OPS ranked eighth out of 26 second basemen with 400+ plate appearances. His 114 wRC+ ranked ninth and his .333 wOBA ranked tenth out of those same 26 second basemen. He’s below average defensively, but overall he’s an average to above average option at the position.

Walker is a good second baseman, but there’s a big divide between the quality of a player and signing that player to an extension. I feel that in a lot of cases, people just look at the player, look at whether he is good right now, and make a long-term determination based on that short-term factor. In Walker’s case, there are a lot of reasons why an extension makes no sense from a long-term standpoint, even if Walker is a good player in the short-term.

The Age Factor

This isn’t a situation where you extend Andrew McCutchen so that you control him through his age 31 season, rather than controlling him through his age 28 season. Neil Walker isn’t a young player. He turned 28 at the end of the 2013 season. He’s under control for three more seasons. If the Pirates kept him for the next three years throughout his arbitration process, then he’d be 31 years old when he was eligible for free agency.

Any extension is talking about signing Walker for his ages 31 and beyond seasons. Walker was 27 years old for most of the 2013 season. That’s usually the prime of a player’s career. In Walker’s case, he is at best an above average second baseman in his prime, sitting around the back end of the top ten, with a big drop off in performance after the top five players. If that’s where his career is at in his age 27 season, then where will he be at ages 31, 32, and so on?

We’re starting to see that with Garrett Jones. He was 32 in 2013, and saw a massive decline. The Pirates have seen the same thing around the same age with other players. The Pirates dodged a bullet when Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez didn’t accept extensions back in 2009. Both players went downhill due to age, whether that was due to a rapid decline in performance, injuries, or both.

The Freddy Sanchez Factor

Sanchez is a great example of why you shouldn’t extend Walker. Just like Walker, Sanchez was a good second baseman. However, he wasn’t a great second baseman. In his final years with the Pirates, he had a .784, .669, and .776 OPS in his 2007-2009 seasons. The Pirates traded him in 2009 at the age of 31. He played two more years with the Giants, putting up a .739 and a .730 OPS in those years. He also saw his time limited in the final year due to injuries. In the process, the Giants paid him $18 M over three years, and one of those years he didn’t play at all.

And what happened with the Pirates after they traded Sanchez away? They traded for Aki Iwamura, which didn’t work out, but two months into the 2010 season they turned to a prospect to handle the second base job. That prospect was Neil Walker. The Pirates had previously offered Sanchez a two year, $10 M deal, only to pull that offer and trade him. It worked out well for Sanchez, as he made $1 M more per year, and got a third season from the Giants. But what if the Pirates had gotten Sanchez for two additional seasons?

Would we even be talking about Neil Walker right now? A big reason Walker broke into the majors was because there was a hole at second base. He was a third baseman, and the Pirates had Pedro Alvarez and Andy LaRoche ahead of him on the depth charts at the time. Then Iwamura started to struggle, and by the end of April, Walker was playing second base for the first time. By the end of May he was up and taking over as the starter. Does this happen if Freddy Sanchez is still the second baseman, making $5 M a year?

It worked out for the Pirates. The Iwamura deal was a mess, but was limited to two months. After that, Walker provided much more value in 2010-11 than Sanchez did with the Giants (4.4 vs 3.3 WAR). And the Pirates didn’t have to spend $10 M in the process.

The Prospect Factor

The Walker situation looks to play out exactly like the Sanchez situation. The question is, do the Pirates have the prospects to replace Walker by the end of his contract?

The answer is that they have the prospects to replace him before the end of his contract. The system is much better now. The Pirates currently have Jordy Mercer taking over at shortstop in the majors. There are a lot of people who doubt Mercer, but look at his numbers this year:

.285/.336/.435 in 333 at-bats

Walker hasn’t put up a better stat line than that since his four-month rookie season in 2010. In 2013, Jordy Mercer was a better option offensively than Walker, and the offense came from a position where offense is harder to find. So what does that have to do with second base?

Alen Hanson is the top shortstop prospect in the system. The only problem is that there are questions of whether he can stick at shortstop over the long-term. Even if he has to move to second base, his bat will provide enough value to be a starter in the majors. I don’t think Hanson will be up in 2014. He has barely had enough time to adjust to Double-A, and he will likely return there for most of the 2014 season. I could see him arriving in the middle of the 2015 season.

If Mercer is still playing well at that time, then the Pirates will have an interesting decision to make as to who plays shortstop. A lot of that will depend on Hanson’s development, since he has more defensive upside and more overall upside than Mercer. But that discussion is off-topic here. No matter who plays at shortstop when Hanson arrives, the Pirates will have two capable options at middle infield. I believe both could provide the same production as Walker, and at a cheaper overall price. That could allow the Pirates to trade Walker for the final 1.5 years of his deal, or more likely, for the 2016 season since it might be hard to deal him mid-season.

Extending Walker Makes No Sense

Let’s recap…

**Neil Walker will be 31+ in the years we’re talking about for an extension.

**Walker currently doesn’t have amazing numbers in his prime years.

**Like all players in their 30s, Walker would be at risk for a sudden decline in production.

**The Pirates would have to pay Walker a big salary, and would potentially be blocking a younger player.

**Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer project to be the middle infield duo by the middle of the 2015 season.

There’s more potential risk than reward when you talk about extending Walker. The biggest risk is that he could have that rapid decline, and saddle the Pirates with dead contract weight, while blocking a legit prospect or young player.

I know there are other factors at play here. Walker is a fan favorite. He’s from Pittsburgh. He’s surrounded by reporters after every game, even if he had no impact in the game’s outcome. That’s because he’s a good quote, which means you’re going to see him more often in post-game highlights — probably more than you should. His dad has history with the team and knew Roberto Clemente. If you care about these things, then all of these factors can cloud judgement when talking about a player staying.

Honestly, all of those would make a good story to surround a player that does stick around. But the story only works if the player is performing. There are two types of declines from players in their 30s. There’s the star player decline, where a guy doesn’t put up elite numbers anymore, but still puts up good enough results (although maybe not for his star player salary). Then there’s the decline that everyone else sees, where they go from being a starter, to being a bench player or out of the game in a matter of a few quick years.

Walker isn’t a star player. He doesn’t profile as a guy who can succeed over the long-term. That’s mostly because the only thing he does really well is hits right-handers for more power than you usually see from a middle infield spot. He also is injury prone, and that’s a problem that only gets worse as you get older. And if you’re sitting here thinking that the Pirates could just trade him away to avoid a bad contract, then you’re not considering the possibility that they might be too late, with Walker losing his trade value before they could deal him.

Walker will eventually decline. It might not happen until after any extension the Pirates make. It might not happen until after Alen Hanson is ready. But there’s no need to take that kind of risk when you’ve got a better alternative. In this case, the better alternative is an Alen Hanson/Jordy Mercer middle infield, as early as the middle of the 2015 season. Neil Walker is under control through the 2016 season and until the age of 31. But he won’t be needed by that point. And if the Pirates won’t need him in 2016, then there’s no reason at all to discuss extending him beyond that year.

Links and Notes

**Taillon, Polanco, and Kingham are Top Eastern League Prospects

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Second Base

**Could the Pirates Have a $100 M Payroll in 2014?

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013-14 Off-Season Contract Situations

Winter Leagues

**Jameson Taillon Leaves the AFL With a Tweaked Groin

**Winter League Recap: Gregory Polanco Will Play Winter Ball in Dominican

**Winter League Recap: David Bromberg Makes His Debut

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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  • CalipariFan506

    100% agreed. And IMO a guy like Aldaberto Santos or Adam Frazier has a shot to emerge as a 2B as well before the end of the 2016 season to also make keeping Walker even less useful.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      I’m with you and Tim 100%, Cal…

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

      Both guys need more power to be considered an option for the majors, or more than a bench option.

  • Heckler1

    I hate to admit it but you are exactly correct about Neil Walker. He is good (he made it to the Show and none of us reading Pirates Prospects ever did) but he’s just average good. His abysmal performance during the playoffs with that team from Missouri whose name I refuse to mention is demonstrative of the need for a bat at second base. I will argue until I’m purple in the face but I think the Pirates made a huge mistake trading Brock Holt to the Red Sox. Maybe they can get him back and if they can’t the Bucs need to search for a thumb to put in the leaking dike at Second.

  • steelpro

    Neil Walker for Ben Zobrist.

  • leadoff

    I don’t know if Walker will get an extension, but I know the Pirates want to extend him. Anytime a small market team has a good to above average player, they want to extend him. They don’t have a 2nd basemen ready or near ready, if Holt were here, he would not play for Hurdle, Hanson will not play for Hurdle if he makes errors. Walker is a solid player, solid players are worth having around, he makes the double play better than most. His solid if not spectacular defense is vital to the Pirate pitching staff.
    The Pirates bring in pitchers that to some are reclamation projects, but to the Pirates they are not, if they have very good ground ball rates, the Pirates will bring them in, Why? because the Pirates think they have strong defense up the middle, that defense is something they will not part with easily, if I am a betting man I put my money on the Pirates extending Walker, if he will take the money, they have tried before, but the money was not working.

    • CalipariFan506

      Well nobody is talking about locking him up now. At least I hope not. He has three more eyars with the Pirates. IMO somebody will emerge between now and 2016 as a legitimate 2nd base option. Adam Frazier is actually a lot like Brock Holt it looks like. Maybe it will be him. Maybe we’ll draft a 2nd baseman this year that will be ready. Maybe we’ll trade somebody else and get a 2nd base prospect. Maybe it will be Hanson or Mercer. Maybe it will be Aldaberto Santos or a different low level minors player. The point is you don’t tie yourself to average longer than you have to.

      If 2016 comes and there is no option, then you talk about a 2 or 3 year extension for Walker. Not now though.

      • MaineBucs

        I fully concur with the sentiment that there is no need to extend Neil Walker. My reasons:

        Walker has missed significant time in each of the last 2 seasons, and that does not bode well for his future performance.

        While most ballplayers appear to be quite streaky, Walker seems particularly prone to hot and cold streaks.

        As Tim has pointed out, Walker is really more of a platoon player than someone who can be counted upon to post really good numbers against right-handers and at least decent numbers against lefties. While I respect platoon players, platoon players should not be paid at the same rate as regular players. Also, while some players seem to adjust over the course of their careers to posting better split numbers, Walker appears to be regressing or not progressing. I view this as another sign of a future decline.

        I like Neil Walker. He plays decent defense, he hits with more power than many second baseman, he plays hard, and he positively talks about the Pirates. That said, I need to go with my head more than my heart. Pay Neil season to season, even if it means arbitration, but do not commit to a long term deal. I believe there are other, more important places, for the Pirates to commit monies to longer term contracts.

        • BostonsCommon

          “Pay Neil season to season”.
          .
          Exactly. There is no reason to extend him. I’m fine with arbitration this year, but he does have an extra year due to super 2… What if he approaches $10M in that last year? What if he exceeds it? I don’t even know if he’s going to be worth his arbitration numbers, let alone worth an extension.

          I mean is he really going to be in that high of demand when he does hit free agency? Will there be multiple teams offering him multi-year contracts? I don’t know that…

          I go year by year with Neil until it makes sense for both parties to spli…

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Truly amazing. I cannot disagree more. And, that sentence about his defense is priceless – ” He’s below average defensively, but overall he’s an average to above average option for the position”. ??????? He is the 7th rated defensive second baseman out of I think 20 second basemen who qualified with enough games played. And, out of that same 20 qualifiers, he finished second in Range Factor – the kid from the Twins I think was at 4.99 and Walker was 4.95 and the RF goes well down to the 4.20 area with the average being about 4.45 – ,50 is a major, major difference. Do these numbers count? If you combine the fielding percentage and the Range Factor, would that mean that a #7 and a #2 would result in a defensive Top 5 player at that position? I think so. And, in a down year he had 24 doubles, 16 HR’s and 50/85 W/K Ratio. This is the year to sign him long term.

    Neil Walker is a bargain at $3.3 mil and it will increase at a level that we will not be comfortable with unless we can sign him long term now, and therefore, know what it will cost to have a MLB Top 5 defensive second baseman with a bat that will continue to improve. I wonder how many 2B will be making $9 mil or more in 2014? We can start with Cano, Uggla, Weeks, Utley, Kinsler, Pedroia, and Phillips. Then we can possibly get Kendrick and others. The Pirates are successful because they have a great blend of players and they are tremendously popular with the fans. I wonder if there are any young ballplayers in Pittsburgh who see him as a local kid who made good, or any ticket buying parents who see Neil Walker as a positive role model for their kids, or any of the ladies in the crowd who do not appreciate him. It is not chess pieces out there.

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

      Here are the UZR leaderboards for qualified second basemen:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=2b&stats=fld&lg=all&qual=y&type=1&season=2013&month=0&season1=2013&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

      Walker ranks 14/19.

      If we expand that to 700 innings as a qualifier (just to get close to 30 options), then Walker ranks 20/28.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=2b&stats=fld&lg=all&qual=700&type=1&season=2013&month=0&season1=2013&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

      You’re using fielding percentage, which is a horrible evaluator for defense. You’re also using range factor. That’s also a bad stat, since it only looks at putouts and assists divided by innings. In both cases, Walker (or any other player) can see their numbers inflated due to the defensive shifts the Pirates employed.

      • emjayinTN

        Tim: Sometimes the stats can be too controlling. Fielding %age alone is one measure, but it does not tell me if the position player can move – how much ground can he cover? That is why I combine the fielding %age and the Range Factor because in my feeble mind, if you can get to more and cover more ground while still maintaining a top quality fielding %age, then you are my guy.

        And, using stats alone to tell you who needs to be signed is bypassing all of the human aspect of the game. This is the ENTERTAINMENT business and the Pirates are perched on the doorstep of national popularity, and Neil Walker has it all going for himself, and a great story – a Pittsburgh Story. Does it get any better?

  • leadoff

    UZR is the worst defensive stat there is, virtually impossible to be accurate.
    I will take errors graded by me, range graded by me, in other words I will take my own stats. Does UZR stat show how a 2nd basemen stands in for the double play when a runner is coming? does a UZR stat show fielding technique? Does a UZR show positioning of the player? It attempts to determine range and it can’t do it. Using this stat to determine the value of an infielder is ludicrous and I know everyone into the stat revolution does.
    This is a simple way to tell about a defensive player, ask yourself this question…There are two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of ninth, who do you want the ball hit to on the Pirates team to get the last out? In my book, on the Pirates team it is Walker. Left fielder might drop it, center fielder might drop it hot dogging, right fielder can’t catch it if it is hit 10ft in front of him, 3rd basemen might throw it into the cheap seats, SS might throw it into the cheap seats. First basemen might not handle the hop. So while they are handing out long term contracts hand one out to a guy that resembles Maz, in todays world Maz probably does not make the team, I am sure there is some stat that he sucked at, micro analyzing seems to be in these days.

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

      “UZR is the worst defensive stat there is, virtually impossible to be accurate.”

      It’s actually the best defensive stat there is. If we’re looking at accuracy, then no defensive stat works. But if we want to be as close to accurate as possible, then UZR wins over everything, even personal opinions.

      Think about it this way: your personal opinion is formed based on:

      1. Every play that you have seen that player make
      2. Every play that you have seen other players at the same position make
      3. Comparing #1 and #2 to see how the individual stacks up to everyone else

      UZR is the exact same thing. The only difference is that you are limited in how many plays you have seen. There is no limit to UZR. It measures every play that an individual made against every play that everyone made. That’s impossible for an individual person to do. There are other impossible things that UZR does. For example, it measures the exact percentage of making a play from a specific spot. When a person is watching a play, they’re not thinking instantly how X% of fielders made the same play. They’re probably not even considering how often a play is expected to be made in that zone.

      If you want to disagree with the results that UZR comes up with, then feel free. But saying that your own view is better than UZR is false. Like every human, you’re limited as to what you can see, and you can’t calculate it on the fly. UZR factors every play, and uses an exact percentage when comparing them. It’s the same process you use, only with a larger and more accurate sample.

      Also, regarding the Maz comment, Walker is not Maz. UZR wasn’t around, but other defensive metrics show how good Maz was, and Walker just doesn’t compare. He doesn’t even come close. This is a common argument against advanced stats, saying that they would have disregarded some star player from back when advanced stats weren’t around. But it’s always false, and any advanced stat that is available to quantify that player’s value proves it. In the case with Maz, his Total Zone was 148 in his career. Walker is -11. His defensive value on FanGraphs is 200.5 for his career. Walker has been -12.2 so far.

  • rob_elzer

    I think that Neil Walker is an underrated player in the Majors, but a pretty overrated player in Pittsburgh. There is absolutely no reason at all to extend him.