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
**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.
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