(Photo Credit: David Hague)

With His Improved Offense, Is Neil Walker Due For an Extension?

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.

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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, 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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  • Ron Loreski

    I don’t like UZR. I think its a desperate attempt to put a stat on defense. But if you wanna go by that, it makes sense for Walker to eventually make the transition to 1B or 3B. Especially if he can maintain this power. I can’t envision Walker playing for any other team. I think the Pirates are always going to find a spot for him, as long as his bat stays alive.

    • Lukas Sutton

      Never underestimate the pirates dedication to get guys at the right price or walk. If they dont fall in love with a part of a guys game (like the defense martin brings at a key spot) they wont go market price. Walker will have to take a sizeable pay cut since he isnt great on defense and isnt a complete hitter.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I’d take Walker at 3rd, due to the difficulty filling the position and the foregone conclusion that pedro WILL be gone with no internal candidates at this point even reasonably close. I also hate UZR. I don’t mind having a stat, i just think UZR is a crappy way to account for it. There are better measures. UZR when taken into account with runs saved AND fielding percentage gives a better picture

      • bucsws2014

        Starkey & Muller were discussing a Walker extension today on the FAN and I wanted to call in with exactly that point. Pedro will likely be traded next year, if not this offseason (alternatively he sticks through 2016 and gets a QO). Davis is only here through 2015. If he can keep up the power #s, I can easily see Walker at either corner, but probably third since we might be seeing a prospect up by 2016 (Allie?). Hanson is going to lay claim to 2b. A move to a corner should also lengthen Walker’s productive career by a year or two.

  • PikeBishop65

    Yes, don’t want to have to replace his offense in two years when we trade Alvarez for prospects or he walks in free agency. Nothing extravagant, but two years of free agency sounds about right.

  • jaygray007

    A few thoughts…

    If Hanson can provide 90% of the production for 10% of the price, Hanson should be the long term 2nd baseman.

    Is pedro a guy they want to extend?

    Can walker switch back to 3b and provide similar results to guys like Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley?

    If I was running the team, my long term plan would be to acquire a real SS (DIDI!), have hanson at 2b, and buy a veteran 3b whether that is a bought-low Alvarez, a nice extension to the hometown boy Walker, or a FA like Headley once Alvarez leaves (via trade or FA). Or who knows? Maybe hanson gets used in a trade this year and my plan is null and void.

    • Y2JGQ2

      extending Pedro isn’t an option- Boras client

    • PikeBishop65

      Extending Pedro? No way: Average defender and future DH anyway. Lousy OPS for all that power, and he just fails again and again with men on and the game is tied or we are behind, wretched situational hitter..
      I’d like to see the “Tony Pena trade” sometime next year.

      • jaygray007

        i agree it’s probably a bad idea. I was just covering all my bases.
        But there exists a fair extension salary and term for him. he probably just wouldn’t accept it.

  • Andrew

    On Walkers defense if you look the Inside Edge data on Fangraphs, which does something similar to DRS, UZR do by grouping opportunities into buckets, there are 15 opportunities in the three buckets that cover 10%-90% range. Walker has converted 6 of these, if he would have converted 8 or 9 I think his UZR would be around career norms. Anyway, just adding that UZR is volatile in small samples, especially when you take that number and projected it out to per 150.

    Looking at just offensive runs Walker is 6th. I cannot foresee a situation where there would be any surplus value in an extension, it would be the free agent market rate, but it may be something the Pirates have to do.

  • Hawbs2

    Tim there’s a article on the Post-Gazette saying the Pirates could trade Walker rather than trying to sign him to a extension could you see the possibility of the pirates trying to trade Walker? Kind of like how they sold high on Brad Lincoln.

  • smurph

    Tim, I don’t necessarily agree age 31 and 32 seasons are when a player starts to decline. Too many variables to make that statement. In the case of Freddy, I think the large number of injuries took their toll, and he really only had 2 or 3 very good seasons. In the case of Walker, he has been a solid player when he is not injured or coming off an injury. So the key for a 31 or 32-yr-old player is: work harder to keep yourself in shape, hopefully avoid injuries, and I think most players can maintain their level of contribution. I agree with you that he is a complimentary player, not one you build your team around. I think 3rd could be a realistic position for him when k-dro leaves. You don’t offer him Marte money, but something reasonable, as he will be getting some pretty good money in arbitration the next two years.

    • Lukas Sutton

      The irony in that is you said for Freddy, injuries took a toll. You then said when walker isnt hurt or just done being hurt, he is great. That is basically the same thing with lipstick on one end. Freddy could have worked harder to stay in shape just as Walker could. Some guys tend to get injured, and age increases the chances. If he isnt good at defense at 2nd, 3rd would be worse thanks to limited range. Walker is solid, but a 4 year deal covering ages 33-34 is a big risk. For injury, for regression, for the price he asks.

  • Scott

    The #1 factor in this decision IMO is whether Hanson can play SS in the majors. Right now it looks like he can’t, but he still has this year in AA and next year in AAA to prove otherwise. If Hanson can play SS, a Walker extension wouldn’t be a bad idea. If Hanson needs to move to 2B, goodbye Neil.

    I hate moving Walker to 3B, I think his defense (arm/range) there would be worse than Pedro’s, and that’s saying something. And 1B would be fine, but Ike is there and for now I’m satisfied with him.

    • Y2JGQ2

      keep in mind walkers arm isnt his problem he was a catcher and at third was a great defender in the minors….

    • jaygray007

      why do you think his arm/range would be worse than Pedro’s?

      • Scott

        Pedro has good range and a cannon of an arm, it just comes down to accuracy for him.

        Walker doesn’t move great, and even some of his throws on double play balls don’t look overly strong to 1B. Maybe he could be an average defender at 3B, but he’s getting older and his arm and quickness won’t be getting any better.

        • smurph

          I’m not disputing your numbers, scott. But let’s remember that Walker was learning a new position, while Pedro has played the same position for many years. Both are having poor seasons in the field this year which has been part of the problem of the Pirates’ bad start this year.

          • Scott

            I agree that the numbers don’t really tell the whole story, but with how long Walker has been at 2B, moving to 3B is not gonna be a simple move….for example his first season playing 3B full time again will probably look very similar to those minor league numbers. He’d probably improve some in years 2 and 3 defensively, but we also thought the same about Pedro and he still makes HORRIBLE plays (like today).

            Bottom line: We need someone else to play 3B down the road haha.

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