Over the last few years, we’ve heard reports that the Pittsburgh Pirates were open to discussing an extension with second baseman Neil Walker. The most recent instance came back in November, when Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said that the team was open to discussing an extension with Walker. Apparently, no actual conversations have taken place since 2010, according to Ron Cook, who got this information directly from Walker. (h/t Charlie from Bucs Dugout)
Walker still has two more years of arbitration remaining, before he’s eligible for free agency. I’ve written many times that there is no need to extend him, unlike younger guys like Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Here was the most recent argument against an extension, although if you want the shortened version:
**Walker is already under control until the age of 31. An extension buys out his age 31 and 32 seasons, which is usually when a player starts to decline.
**An example of a sudden decline at that age would be former Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez.
**Previously I said that the future middle infield would include Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer, with both available for the majors after Walker departs as a free agent. Obviously things have changed with Mercer’s projection, after his slow start to the season. JaCoby Jones could be a middle infield option, but he’d have to speed through the minors, making it to Double-A by the second half of 2015, and Triple-A in 2016.
**Walker also hasn’t had amazing overall numbers in his prime years, looking like an overall average second baseman. He’s above average offensively, but the defense brings him down.
Coming into the season, I changed my view on Walker a bit. I noticed that he showed signs of his power trending upwards. He’s also been trending up with the walks. The defense hasn’t seen the same trends, but if his power and walks continued to improve, he could go from an average second baseman to an above average second baseman. In that article, I noted that the 2014 season will be a big year to determine whether he’s extension worthy.
So far, Walker is showing some improvements. His power — which was up in 2010 and 2013, but down in 2011-12 — is looking to be legit this year. His walks have taken a drop, down to a career low. His strikeouts have also dropped to a career low. I noted last year that he saw a spike in OBP due to being hit by a lot of pitches. That has carried over to this year, as he’s already been hit eight times. He’s on pace for about 20 HBP this year, which would beat out his 15 last year. He’s also on pace for almost 25 home runs this year, which would be tremendous power from a second baseman.
You should also keep in mind the issue of sample size for these numbers. It was only a month ago that Walker had a .722 OPS, and no one would have extended him. He’s been on fire in May, with an .886 OPS. Is this an overall improvement, or a really good month?
On the flip side, his defense this year has been the worst of his career, with a -32.6 UZR/150. One thing about UZR is that you don’t want to use just one year of data, or two months of data. But over his career, he has a -7.1 UZR/150, and that’s enough of a sample to be seen as legit. That career number is better than Walker’s 2014 totals, but still below average.
Despite the offense, Walker’s defense this year has dragged him down to tie for the 14th best WAR out of 22 ranked second basemen. He is one of the best offensive second basemen this year, ranking sixth on that same list.
Walker is having the best offensive year of his career. He’s also having the worst defensive year of his career. I don’t think his defense will continue to be this bad, and I wouldn’t want to make that claim on just two months of data. At the same time, I can’t really turn around and say the offense is legit, based on two months of data that conflicts with his career totals.
I’ve never seen Walker as an impact player. He’s a support player. He’s a good guy to have, in addition to the guys you build your team around. But he doesn’t look like a guy you build around. I’ve also been open to changing that opinion if Walker showed improvements with his game. I don’t think we’ve got enough of a sample this year to fully say whether his overall game has improved.
The Pirates are to the point where they won’t get much of a value in extending Walker. A quick look at MLBTR’s extension tracker shows a trend for players who have more than four years of service time. In most cases, they either sign a two-year deal, buying out their final arbitration years for cost control purposes, or they sign a big deal that pays them like a free agent. Because they are past the point on getting value in a Walker extension, they can wait and see how the situation develops.
While they are waiting, a few key questions can be answered:
**Will Walker continue with his improved offense?
**Is the defense this year just a fluke, or has Walker really declined?
**Will the minor injury issues Walker has had in his career start to become major as he gets older?
**Will a few younger players step up in the next two and a half years to provide the middle infield of the future?
**Will Walker start to decline in his final year with the Pirates (age 30 season)?
It wouldn’t hurt to hold off on a Walker extension, at least until a few of these questions are answered.