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.
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