If Neil Walker was born in Bradenton, or Kansas, or California, or anywhere outside of the Pittsburgh area, then this off-season might have a different tone. Walker is a good player, but not a great player. He’s a great guy, and very insightful, which combined with the fact that he’s from Pittsburgh is why news cameras crowd him after every game at PNC Park, regardless of whether he had an impact in that game. He’s portrayed as a guy who is a core member of the team, and someone who should be extended, rather than upgraded over.
The reality here is that Walker ranks about middle of the pack when it comes to second basemen. He had a 2.4 WAR this year, which was tied for tenth (with former Pirates prospect Brock Holt) out of 20 qualified second basemen. Last year looked to be a career year, when he put up a 3.7 WAR after a huge season at the plate, but every other season has been him around the 2.6-2.7 WAR mark.
This year, Walker hit for a .269/.328/.427 line, which isn’t far off his career total of .272/.338/.431. He also struggled against left-handers, posting a .575 OPS, and those struggles were worse than his career numbers, which were already at a low .656 OPS. They resulted in Walker being platooned by the end of the season.
Defensively, Walker also struggled. He put up a -8.8 UZR/150, which was almost the same as his 2014 results, and slightly down from his -6.4 UZR/150 in his career. Out of 29 second basemen with 600+ innings, Walker ranked 28th in UZR/150 and 20th in Defensive Runs Saved.
The summary is that Walker is a poor defender, poor against left-handed pitching, but great against right-handers, which is enough to put him middle of the pack in the majors at second base.
Heading into the off-season, Walker is projected to make $10.7 M in his final year of arbitration. That seems like a high price to pay when you look at his strengths and weaknesses, but it’s about what you’d expect him to make on the open market, and it’s about what the Pirates would expect to pay for any replacement to put up similar numbers. There aren’t many good replacements expected to hit the open market, and the best ones would cost the same as Walker, and put up similar production.
The trade market could be an option to try and find a sleeper, similar to what the Pirates did last year when they added Francisco Cervelli to replace Russell Martin. However, it might be more difficult to find a sleeper at second base, especially since you don’t have pitch framing, blocking, and other defensive skills that are still a bit under-rated like you do at catcher.
The Pirates do have two second base prospects in the upper levels. The top prospect is Alen Hanson, who spent the entire season in Indianapolis. Hanson was a shortstop up until this season, when he made the switch to second base and showed much better defense. He’s got a good bat, with the potential to hit for average, hit for some power, and provide speed on the bases.
Hanson’s numbers struggled a bit this year due to consistency problems. He started off slow with a .549 OPS in April, which has kind of become a trend the last few seasons. He was great in May, but was up and down the rest of the year, finishing with a .566 OPS from August through the end of the season. The defensive improvements were a great sign, but the offense needs to be more consistent before Hanson can be relied upon as a starter in the majors. Hanson has also struggled against left-handers, which means the Pirates could be in store for another platoon situation in the future if that problem isn’t solved.
Max Moroff had a breakout season in Altoona, and could have propelled himself into the mix at second base. One interesting thing here is that Moroff did well against left-handers, and didn’t have much of a platoon split, meaning he could be an everyday option. However, Hanson has shown more power than Moroff, and much better speed and efficiency on the bases.
The Pirates were prepping both players at other positions this year. They’re both former shortstops that moved to second due to defensive issues, but both received time at the old position this year. They also both got time at third base. This is a common approach in the Pirates’ system. Sometimes it leads to a super utility role, like we saw with Josh Harrison. Sometimes it leads to a player settling in at one position, like we saw with Jordy Mercer, and even Neil Walker. With the need for a long-term second baseman, the odds are better that Hanson and/or Moroff end up at the spot, although they could both break into the majors as utility players.
With no immediate option at the start of the 2016 season, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Pirates to keep Walker. That said, with two options that could be ready by the middle of the season, they might want to go with an unconventional approach. Looking at the available free agents, there are a few guys who provide the same value as Walker, but can play other positions. Ben Zobrist is one of those players, although he’s 35 years old. Asdrubal Cabrera, Daniel Murphy, and Howie Kendrick are players that are closer to age 30 who can play second base, provide about 2-2.5 WAR, and can play other positions.
All of these players cost less in 2015 than Walker’s projected 2016 salary. If the Pirates signed one of these players, they could start them at second base at the beginning of the year, and use them in a utility role in the second half if Hanson or Moroff are ready to take over. Or, they could shift to a utility role if Josh Harrison is available to move over to second base, which would come when Jung-ho Kang is healthy again (Harrison could also fill that utility role).
Walker wouldn’t be a great option for this type of role, as his range is poor and his defense wouldn’t be better on the left side of the infield, or the outfield. There’s always the suggestion to move him to first base, but that suggestion usually just assumes he will be strong defensively at the position. This ignores the fact that he’s played just seven minor league games at first base, all of which came in 2010. As noted above, he’s a poor defender and a platoon player.
That leaves Walker as a platoon option who would be making the transition to first base, all while getting paid around $10.7 M for his second base production. He has a career .803 OPS against right-handers, while Pedro Alvarez is at .794 and Michael Morse is at .787 (with an .808 OPS against right-handers). That small extra production, and the uncertainty of his defense at first base, wouldn’t be worth the price he’s set to receive.
If the Pirates do keep Walker, it should only be for second base, and only for the 2016 season until a replacement is ready. But it might be better to go with one of the potential utility guys on the open market for the same price, as that provides better flexibility in the second half, which could lead to a much stronger bench, and the same value at second base that Walker would have brought.