The topic of extending Neil Walker gets brought up every off-season. It’s always a subject that causes a huge divide. To some, Walker is seen as a key member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and an irreplaceable part of the core of this team. Some of this evaluation might have to do with the fact that Walker is from Pittsburgh. To others, Walker is a good player, but not a great player. He’s not a guy like Andrew McCutchen, who is the core of the team, but he’s a good guy to add in support of players like McCutchen.

Your view on a potential Walker extension is probably determined by whether you think he’s a star player, or just a good player that is only worth so much. At this point in his career, extending Walker doesn’t really save any money. He’s about to enter his next to last arbitration year, in which he will likely make close to $8 M. The final year of arbitration could be around $10 M. And any free agent years that would be bought out would likely be at the same rate they would be if the Pirates went year-to-year then tried to sign him after the 2016 season.

I’ve always been against the idea of extending Walker. In large part, that is due to the financial details I listed above. There’s really no need to extend him, since there aren’t any big financial savings at this point. There’s also the big fact that the Pirates have him under team control through his age 30 season, and that he’d be a free agent at age 31. Any extension would likely buy out some of his declining years, which will probably be plagued by injuries, based on his injury history at younger ages.

We also didn’t really know what type of player Walker would be for the first few years of his career. I’m still not sure if that question has been answered. At the beginning of the 2014 season, I took a different look at Walker, noting that he had improving trends with his offense, and could turn into a second baseman with an OPS over .800. Here is an excerpt from that article.

I still wouldn’t extend Walker, at least not this off-season. The only way I’d extend him is if he came under a Jose Tabata level deal. That said, if he answers some questions in the future, he could look like a good extension candidate.

The key thing will be the power. Walker already has above-average offensive numbers for a second baseman, but he’d be in top five territory if his power really is trending upwards.

A bonus would be the hit by pitch numbers turning out to be legit. If this was a result of a new approach at the plate, then you’re talking about a second baseman with an OPS over .800. That’s Chase Utley/Jason Kipnis offense, and would definitely be worthy of an extension. It would also come with added injury risks, which is the downside. Then again, the walks have also been trending upward each year, so perhaps he can show improvements in that area, and improve his ability to get on base without getting hit.

The defense is still below average. But the added offense could be enough to take Walker from an overall average second baseman to an above average second baseman. That might be worthy of an extension, especially if you take the view that Walker could eventually take over for Pedro Alvarez at third base. Walker would definitely need that added offense to provide value at third.

Basically I’ve gone from being convinced that Walker isn’t worthy of an extension, ever, to saying it might not be a bad idea if he answers the right questions about his game going forward. The 2014 season will be a big year to determine whether he’s extension worthy.

I reviewed Walker’s 2014 season earlier today, noting how he had a career year offensively. As I noted before the season, he was capable of an OPS over .800 if his HBP numbers remained, and if his power continued to increase. Both things happened, and Walker ended up with an .809 OPS, ranking third best among second basemen. However, some of the increased power was due to a lucky HR/FB ratio, which probably won’t continue going forward. That would probably take his power down to 2013 levels, which still makes him an above-average second baseman offensively. The walks also didn’t trend upwards, but instead took a step back, so he’s still relying on his HBP numbers to boost his OBP.

A big problem this year was that Walker’s defense took a big drop. He wasn’t just “below average” like he was listed at the beginning of the year. He ranked as one of the worst defensive second baseman among all qualified starters this year, posting a -8.4 UZR/150. Overall, Walker was a 3.7 WAR player. But if his power drops next year, and the defense continues to decline, he won’t maintain those levels. Furthermore, his offense isn’t good enough for first base, and would need a boost to hold up at third base.

The Pirates are in a position where they don’t need to extend Walker, at least not at the moment. They still have him under control for two more years. They also have Alen Hanson making his way up from the minors. Those two years will provide a lot of answers.

  • Will Walker continue hitting like one of the top second basemen in the game, or will his HR/FB ratio regress back to his career average, taking his offense down in the process?
  • Is Walker’s struggle defensively in 2014 a sign that he’s not going to be good defensively at second base, or is it a one year slump?
  • Can Alen Hanson take over and provide the same value as Walker for a much cheaper price?
  • Will any of Walker’s small injuries start to turn into bigger issues as he gets older?

If the answers to these questions point to the need to keep Walker beyond the 2016 season, then that’s when the Pirates should extend him. In the process, they’d be getting him for about the same price as he would cost right now. The difference is that they’d avoid a situation where they would extend Walker, then be on the hook for a big amount of money if his deal went bad in the next two years. That’s not a risk the Pirates can afford to take.

Links and Notes

**AFL: Joely Rodriguez Pitches Well, Two More Hits For Josh Bell

**Jeff Banister is a Finalist For the Texas Rangers Manager Job

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Second Base Recap: Examining Neil Walker’s Career Year

**Dodgers Hire Andrew Friedman – How This Could Impact Russell Martin

**Baseball America’s EL Top 20 List Offers Some Big Surprises

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Respectfully, this is an awful article. What exactly does Mr. Williams have against Walker? He is one of he best second baseman in the game. There is zero chance “the deal will go bad” if they extend him. He is, at worst, a .270 hitter with 15-20 HR’s every year, great for a 2B. I guess it depends how much faith you put into UZR, I put NONE into it..its a stupid stat with no proven reliability. He is an average defensive player. He is not “bad”. You can quote stats out your butt, I see him play every day, he is fine. The Pirates shift like crazy every batter. They place him on the field, so if a ball is hit too far for him to get it, its their fault, not Walker’s.

    I do not care if the Pirates “get value” in a deal. He is a very good second baseman and is guaranteed to continue his production barring injury. But every player can be injured, so that too is no reason not to extend him. If the Pirates want to be a real contending team, like Martin, you have to sometimes pay market rate. If Walker wanted crazy money, that would be one thing, but they should sign him 4 years for 40 million yesterday.

  2. Having seen Hanson play a few times, his defense doesn’t give me warm & fuzzies, and I’m not convinced his bat will play in the big leagues. I know Ngoepe’s bat hasn’t looked good, but it might be a better bet to move him up and hope his hitting improves enough to be playable; ending the switch hitting experiment might help.

  3. If they extended him 2 years ago for his FA years + one more, it would probably have cost the Pirates for his years through 31st year the same as it will for arbitration through 30 now.

    Where he grew up is a nice story. It has zero effect on arbitration or contract negotiations

  4. Walker should be a part of this team until his years of control are up and then decide what he is at that time. Think about Russ Martin two years ago – he was a bum too, now he’s a steal… could be the same with Neil. Ok so he’s not Brandon Phillips at 2b, but I’ve watched them both and I think he’s more consistent than Phillips and his range is adequate.
    He’s also clutch and currently our 4 hole hitter of which we don’t have another at this time. What does Clutch get paid?? Less than $10 mil I bet on most teams, although we all know he’s probably better suited as a 5 hole guy. An extension, probably not at this time – but don’t bet your house on it.

  5. Perhaps the reason Walker is paid so much is because the front office refuses to offer a long-term contract. It appears as if the fo has never wanted to play Walker at any position and was forced to call him up to play second when another move by the fo led to calamity at second. Arbitration is a poor way to manage payroll.
    As to “range”…isn’t that what positioning is all about? Be in the right place at the right time and “range” is of limited value. Not be in position and all the range in the world won’t matter.

  6. I have a question someone can likely answer. Does UZR measure from a neutral starting point? What I mean is does it measure every 2nd baseman starting from a traditional starting point and then seeing how much ground they cover? If so how do the shifts Pittsburgh incorporates change his defensive numbers. I can remember watching games where he would be in a shift and the ball would be placed right where a traditional starting point for a 2nd baseman would be standing.

      • If any play with a shirt is disregarded for UZR purposes, just how many plays are counted? Take a look around the NL and almost every, if not all, teams employ the bench coach as a positioner based on all of those indices that teams keep, just like the pitching coach spends most of his time charting the other team’s pitchers and why advance scouts have been used for decades.
        Understand, that if you want to use sibermetrics, then you need to use positioning as a part of determining defensive capabilities.
        All things being put together, I’d rather have Walker than most any other 2nd baseman.
        And, by the way, having appendicitis is not an injury.

        • I don’t think anybody here doesn’t like Neil. I think he’s a great option for the next few years. His offensive abilities definitely allow you to overlook what he does with the glove at 2b for his still-below-market contract.

          However, i think that many here are just concerned that his range isn’t what it used to be, and that a 34 year old Walker will almost surely be an awful defender by the eye test, UZR, or whatever.

          And no, i don’t think sabermetrics “need to use positioning.” Disregarding positioning just happened to work best for that specific metric. Just use the eye test.

          Plus i can guarantee that teams are lightyears ahead of the sabermetric sites we see. I’m sure they have defense quantified pretty well. The public metrics just aren’t thhaaaat great. But they’re good enough to get an idea.

        • There were roughly 184,000 plate appearances by Major League hitters in 2014.

          One Hundred Eighty Four Thousand.

          Even doubling the roughly 8,000 shifts used in 2013 doesn’t even take out 10% of the sample size.

        • UZR only measures how well a player turns balls in outs compared to his peers. It is agnostic to whether a player is great at positioning himself well, he reads the ball off the bat well, or has great first step.

          So basically based on batted ball type and what zone the ball is hit to does said player turn the ball into outs. Walker has never been rated well. Is it prefect no, but it is better than what was used before.

          Your argument is that teams have better data ( likely true) but then are using this data to position Walker in a sub-optimal way.

  7. Walker would be a good fit for an extension and a move to 1st base if Bell was not on his way, therefore an extension is most unlikely and should not happen. Hanson will be the 2nd basemen on this team or they will make a trade, when Walker moves on, by then they will clean up a lot of Hansons defensive liabilities, they also have Jacoby Jones in the system, a lot of things can happen in the next 2 years.

  8. Walker’s 2B defense is the biggest problem, in my mind. His range is poor, confirmed by both metrics and the eye test. And the Pirates pretty clearly value good defense, and with a staff that leans toward inducing grounders, Walker isn’t a great fit defensively at 2B. I’m skeptical that the front office will ignore this and leave him there full-time another year.

    • another year should be fine because he still provides good value by making under 10 mil and by hitting so much.

      another 5 years… not so much

    • Your eyes and mine see two different things, and I am totally disregarding UZR as a viable metrics since it does not take into consideration the shifts that the Pirates make.

      Honestly to say Walker is the worse defensive second baseman in the league is IMO, the craziest thing I have ever heard. Go back through the MLB com game archives and watch some of the amazing plays he makes, and then tell me that.

      Extension or no extension, Walker is a better defensive fielder then he is getting credit for.

      • “I am totally disregarding UZR as a viable metrics since it does not take into consideration the shifts that the Pirates make.”

        This doesn’t make sense. Why would you disregard UZR for that reason? It shows the plays that relied solely on his range and skills, and not the plays where he was helped by a shift.

  9. The Pirates should only negotiate extensions with players who we can recognize as All-Stars in the making. Tabata is an example of a huge extension mistake, notwithstanding it was considered to be “team-friendly” at the time it was signed. It is certainly not team-friendly now. McCutcheon and Marte were great extensions. The next extension candidate should be J-Hay, not Walker. J-Hay is an All-Star, whether Walker ever becomes one is questionable.

      • All Star as a generic representation of exceptional player yes. I am obviously not advocating turning over the decision on who to extend to the All Star selection process. Rather candidates for extension should be only those exceptional players who merit consideration for the All Star team. Walker may be on the ballot, and his bat now measures up at 2nd base, but his defense holds him back. Walker is like a B+ grade from back in school. Good, but not exceptional. The money you save by not extending him is available to be used to extend someone else more deserving, like J-Hay, or maybe eventually Cole or Polanco.

    • The only reason Walker didn’t make the All Star team was that every team has to have an all star.

      A few bad teams had to send their worse-than-Walker 2b because those were their best players.

      I forget who, but I remember reaching that conclusion at the time of the All Star game.

    • Pirateaddict, can we see JHay do it for more than one season before we extend him. Looking at the 2014 Pirates, I see him as the greatest candidate for regression, as this year came out of nowhere. I am not saying NOT to sign him long term, but instead, let’s see another 1/2 season

  10. If PRNW moves to 3b and Josh plays 2b, does it matter if PRNW hits like a 3bman, esp if JHay continues to hit? If he gets moved to 1b and Pedro gets over his yips and plays 3b, does it matter if PRNW ‘hits like a 1bman’?

    It’s the same guys, being shuffled around. It doesn’t matter WHERE your production comes from, as long as you get production from somewhere (or collectively)

    • Excellent.

      Only quibble would be within the context of this article, on extending Walker, paying him like a good hitting 2B probably wouldn’t turn out to be good value if he turned into an average hitting 1B. But you didn’t make that distinction specifically so I think your comment is still a good one.

    • An extension talks about post-2016. I doubt Alvarez is still around at that point, since he’s only under team control through the 2016 season. So it’s not really the same guys at that point.

      Also, I echo NMR’s comments about the price. Walker’s price is high right now, but it probably wouldn’t be that high if he was a first baseman with the same numbers. You’d be paying him to be an above-average second baseman offensively, while getting an average first baseman or third baseman.

      • Tim: He was a 3.7 WAR this year which was heavily due to offense, because as you pointed out, his defense was below average. This followed 3 previous years of 2.6, 2.6, and 2.7 WAR. Our 1B combo combined for a 0.2 WAR in 2014 or am I reading those stats incorrectly? If I am not mistaken about their combined WAR being 0.2, I would not hesitate to unload Gaby and Ike this off-season, put Neil at 1B full time, JHAY at 2B, and Pedro at 3B to start 2015.

        Neil’s average for HR’s is not an adequate number to use since he has increased the number of HR’s each year for the past 3 years – from 12 to 14 to 16, and then last year to 23. Why not think he can at least maintain a number of 20? A switchhitter who can hit for power and average and has a knack for driving in runs. We paid him $5.25 mil in 2014 and he returned about $18 mil in WAR equivalency. Last year we paid him $3.4 mil (?) and he returned $14 mil in WAR Equivalency? Can we find someone like that on the FA Market to play 1B for us in 2015?

      • Tim, is not Walker in the exact boat as Alvarez, Can they both not become free agents after 2016? Or am I wrong?

  11. I think Tim is right in citing injury as a prime concern–bad backs and big middle infielders are not two tastes that go great together.

  12. I think Tim is right in citing injury as a prime concern–bad backs and big middle infielders are not two tastes that go great together.

  13. he’d be as fine a .270 avg, .340 obp, .450 slg first baseman as any to pay market value for. The problem is that he will have to be paid like a .270 avg, .340 obp, .450 slg second baseman.

    The guy is 6’3″, 210 lbs, is almost 30, is under team control for 2 more years, has injury issues, and already has declining range. Any extension would take him to… what… his age 35 or 36 season? I cant imagine he’ll be able to play 2b effectively at that point because he already barely can.

    I love Neil Walker as the 2b. But by that i mean 29 and 30 yr old Walker, and not 34 and 35 yr old Walker.

  14. I said all along that the pirates have no need to extend walker, it’s not because I don’t think he is a good player it’s simply because he is under team control until he is thirty when the injuries start to catch up with most players and the production falls off. Would I like to see walker remain a pirate for the rest of his playing days,sure I would for sentimental reasons if nothing else. I just don’t see where it makes good basesball sense or financial sense to keep him beyond the next two years.

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