These days, you don’t even need to look at the opposing lineup card to tell if the Pirates are going up against a left-handed pitcher. On most nights, if Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are out of the lineup, that usually means the opponents are going with a left-hander on the mound.
I’ve written many times about Walker and Alvarez being platoon players due to their struggles against lefties. The Pirates have been taking this route with Alvarez the last two years, although it hasn’t always been a strict platoon, with the first baseman going up against some of the non-elite left-handers. Alvarez is actually putting up decent numbers this year with that approach, posting a .773 OPS against lefties in 60 plate appearances. That comes with the small sample size disclaimer, especially when he has a .606 OPS against lefties in his career over 618 plate appearances.
Then there’s Walker, who hasn’t always been treated like a platoon guy. He’s struggling this season with a .578 OPS against left-handers in 98 plate appearances. In his career, he has a .656 OPS in 754 plate appearances against lefties. That’s better than his 2015 numbers, but still not good enough to be a regular starter.
Walker has seen his playing time reduced lately. He’s got just six plate appearances this month against left-handers, and zero starts with a lefty starter on the mound. Granted, they’ve only played four games against left-handers this month, including tonight’s game. But each time, Walker was on the bench.
This off-season is going to be interesting to watch with Alvarez and Walker. They are both eligible for arbitration for one more season. Walker is making $8 M this year, and Alvarez is making $5.75 M. And due to MLB’s arbitration process, they’d both be due raises over their current amounts. It’s likely that the combo would be making at least $17-18 M combined next year. That’s a lot to pay two platoon players.
Alvarez seems like the easy decision. He’s been replacement level this year, worth 0.3 WAR. He’s putting up one of his best offensive years, but his defense has been horrible to the point of driving his value way down. The Pirates have top prospect Josh Bell in Triple-A. He’s got some work to do on defense as well, but could be ready to at least take over the position next summer. Until then, Michael Morse could be an interesting option at first base to fill the gap until Bell arrives.
The situation with Walker is a bit more complicated. The Pirates have Josh Harrison as an option at second base, but Walker has been a better option than Harrison. Walker has a 2.3 WAR this season, compared to an 0.7 WAR for Harrison. And even if Walker makes $10-12 M in his final year of arbitration, his value this season is in line with previous years, when he’s put up a 2.6-2.7 WAR each season, along with his career year last year, which saw a 3.7 WAR.
Furthermore, Harrison is going to be needed at the start of the season at third base with Jung-ho Kang injured, and since there’s no way of knowing how Kang will return, it would be good to have Harrison in his super utility role all year.
The Pirates do have some second base prospects in the upper levels. Alen Hanson finished the season in Triple-A, and Max Moroff finished in Altoona. Hanson would be the most likely to take over for Walker, but didn’t look ready at the end of the year, and the Pirates didn’t call him up. It’s possible that Hanson could be ready at some point next season, but the Pirates will probably need a stopgap until he arrives.
I’ve never been for the idea that the Pirates should extend Walker, mostly because of the scenario that is currently playing out. They’re getting his most productive years, and they’ve got young talent ready to take over when he departs. That said, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep him around for the 2016 season, to serve as that stopgap until Hanson arrives. It’s possible that they could get a cheaper stopgap — especially one that wouldn’t be limited to a platoon role — but the money Walker would be owed is about the upper limits of what his production would be worth on the open market.
A lot can change between now and next season. At this time last year, no one was thinking about Jung-ho Kang or Francisco Cervelli as options for the 2015 team. There might be a guy out there who we’re not even thinking of who could replace Walker. So time will tell as to whether keeping him is the right move, but it wouldn’t be a bad move. As for Alvarez, the Pirates seem to have a replacement already, both in the short-term and long-term, and it would make sense to move on to the short-term replacement (Morse) until the long-term guy is ready (Bell).
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