Walker Worthy of Extension

A lot of people wrote Neil Walker off as a bust before he even had a chance to prove himself in the majors. First, he was a failed catcher. Then, he was a failed third baseman. He needed two years at Triple-A, and didn’t stick in the majors until the age of 24, in his seventh professional season and at his third professional defensive position.

But then a funny thing happened — Walker started producing. Now, he’s one of Pittsburgh’s best players. Last year, when Andrew McCutchen signed his long-term deal, some wondered if Walker would get his as well, but the Pirates wisely waited to see if Walker would produce a similar season in 2012. Since he did, talk about an extension has resurfaced. Is Walker good enough to deserve such an extension? And just what would an extension look like?

As I alluded to at the top, second base is not Walker’s natural position. Like so many others, he moved there after failing to hack it at catcher and third base. But, with the Pirates wanting to get him into its major league lineup, they took the uncommon step of moving him there with hardly any middle infield experience. Walker had just 21 games of experience at the keystone at the minor league level before settling there in the majors. As such, it took Walker awhile to get adjusted to the position. He was never awful there, but over the past three years, he has improved. By any defensive metric of choice — UZR, DRS, FRAA or the Fans Scouting Report — Walker was a better defender in 2012 than he was in 2010. He’s now roughly average, which is a plus. But even if he regresses and performs at the level he has over his three-year sample, which is a UZR/150 of -5.0, he’d still be slightly better than Rickie Weeks and Dan Uggla (and a lot better than Weeks by DRS, -15 to -51). Not great, but the comps are clearly there.

His bat, on the other hand, certainly plays well at his position. In his three seasons in the majors, Walker’s 112 wRC+ ranks seventh among second basemen, and is better than Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Howie Kendrick and Aaron Hill, to name a few. Staying with the three-year view, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist have all been clearly better than Walker, but the line gets murkier from there. Chase Utley got on base at a healthier clip, and Weeks and Uggla bashed far more homers, but at the end of the day, Walker’s numbers weren’t that far behind them.

Walker’s contributions tend to fly under the radar because he doesn’t do anything at an elite level. He hasn’t yet hit .300, or slugged .500 (or even .470), and he hasn’t hit shiny round number plateaus like 20 homers or 10 stolen bases. But he walks at an above-average rate, and has managed to strike out less frequently than the average player as well. His K% was up last season to the point of essentially being league average, but his swinging strike percentage was well below league average, so there is reason to think that his K% will creep back down a bit in 2013. In addition, Walker doesn’t have a problem pitch, like say Phillips has against sliders.

So how would an extension for Walker look like? He’s a little bit difficult to peg. He has two years of eligibility, and it’s been a couple of years since a second baseman signed an extension at that level of service time. Cano, Zobrist, Pedroia, Kinsler and Hill all signed extensions when they were at that level of service time, and their deals averaged four and a half years and $25 million. But, the most recent of those deals was Zobrist’s, and it was signed back in 2010. More recently, Hill, Phillips, Uggla, Kinsler, Kendrick, Weeks and Marco Scutaro have signed either extensions or free-agent deals. But while they were more lucrative on average (4.3 years, $48 million), all of those players had at least five years of service time. And at 27 this year, Walker is essentially between age ranges for the two groups as well.

Walker, like every other player in baseball, avoided arbitration in his first time being eligible, and will make $3.3 million this year. If he maintains the three-win baseline that he has established the past two seasons, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him end up with earnings of $12-14 million in 2014 and 2015, if he chooses to go through the arbitration system. But while most players would be done with arbitration after those three trips, Walker will get a fourth crack at it since he was a super-two this season. Conservatively then, Walker is looking at $20 million in his next three trips through arbitration, and that could get up as high as $24-26 if you really dream. As a free agent today, he could probably expect to bank around $11 million, so if you tacked a couple of those seasons on to the end of the deal, you’re up to the high 40’s.

A 5-year, $45 million extension that kicks into effect next season seems perfectly reasonable for both sides. On Walker’s side, he gets his guaranteed money now, and the luxury of knowing that he has topped other recent deals in his service time class. For the Bucs, they get a potential steal, since Walker has been worth more than $14 million in each of the past two seasons, and very well may continue to be worth that much in the next few. In addition, they get the positive press of locking up a local boy who has come to be the second-best player on the team after McCutchen.

Walker is probably never going to be a star, but for his position he is more than solid, and with any growth may become a top-five second baseman. Locking him up now, before his salary really takes off through the arbitration process, would be a smart play for Pittsburgh, both from a financial and public relations perspective, especially since Walker appears more than amenable to such overtures. It may have taken awhile for him to get there, and he may fly under the radar, but Walker is certainly a player worth locking up.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Utah Dave
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Utah Dave
3 years 6 months ago

Speaking as a life long Pirates fan, I would love to see this happen. If he can stay healthy I think he is a very solid 2B with good offensive upside. Plus I don’t think there is any 2B in the minors waiting to bump him from the lineup. At some point if the Pirates really are going to contend, they are going to have to start paying out this type of money to at least a handful of players.

JA311
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JA311
3 years 6 months ago

As a neutral observer, extending a guy like Walker makes a lot of sense for the Pirates. A 3 win player on the open market would probably get even more than $11 million when you compare it to other players deals this past offseason (Upton, Swisher, Guthrie for example)

epoc
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epoc
3 years 6 months ago

I’m of the opposite opinion. For a team like the Pirates, handing out big contracts to non-elite talents seems like a terrible idea. The fact that Walker’s already under control for a long time (through age 30, about the point when 2B seem to fall off cliffs) makes extending him an even more dubious proposition. It seems like the smart move would be to wait a few years and get the lay of the land at that point.

David
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3 years 6 months ago

As I Pirates fan I’m going to be in the minority but I wouldn’t want to do a deal like that. This deal would take lock him until he was 33. That’s a little late for a second baseman with back problems. I’d be all for a four year deal, including this one, with two options years though. Say a four year 25 million dollar deal. 24 million for 2013-2016 and a 500K buyout for each option year. That way the Pirates control him through his age 30 season and can keep him another two years should he be worth it.

Josh
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Josh
3 years 6 months ago

Why would Walker want that contract, though? $25 million over four years is just over $6 million per. He got more than half that his first year of arbitration. I would guess that the Pirates would need to pay at least $32-35 million on a four-year deal, and 4/38 seems more likely.

Retirenutting
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Retirenutting
3 years 6 months ago

Wouldn’t go more than 4/36. He’s already locked up til his age 31 season. How much more value do you think you can get out of a average power, good OBP 2B than that? OBP is a risk to tank as he slows down and the back is a major red flag.

szielinski
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Member
szielinski
3 years 6 months ago

Walker did not fail to make it as a thirdbaseman. His defense at thirdbase was fine. In fact, he was well regarded defensively. But he had Pedro Alvarez to beat out. And the Pirates FO did not believe in his bat. He was pegged as a utility player. But Walker began to make adjustments. He began to hit at AAA. When the time came for him to claim secondbase as his, he succeeded. He’s now plays acceptable defense and he hits well enough to have entrenched himself at that position. Only his back will move him out of the lineup anytime soon.

Le Vagabond Paresseux
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Le Vagabond Paresseux
3 years 6 months ago

I don’t see why they need to be in any rush to sign him up, they already have 4 years of team control , surely a team with a limited budget has more to lose than gain by signing a player up long term unless he is elite? Also wasn’t aware of his back problems which would warn me off a deal even more.

epoc
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epoc
3 years 6 months ago

This exactly. Hopefully the Pirates learned this lesson with Jose Tabata.

Roto Wizard
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Roto Wizard
3 years 6 months ago

The Tabata deal was different to a degree, Tabata had one decent season, and the Pirates signed him to an incredibly low dollar amount based on the age/production factor. Sure, in hindsight that deal is looking like a back-breaker, but at the time it was universally praised as a great move.

Walker on the other hand now has several seasons of above average play at a relatively scarce position. That, coupled with his current age make this different than the Tabata deal. We should be open to a discounted deal, but it’ll be hard to stomach a 5/45 signing at this point, maybe a year or two from now might make a little more sense.

Roto Wizard
Member
Roto Wizard
3 years 6 months ago

I agree with most of the comments above, except to add that I wouldn’t mind seeing NFW locked up long term to a team friendly deal(IE: Hometown discount), but signing him to an extension based on what he is likely to be worth, when you already have him cost controlled for those seasons makes… little sense. He seems to be in the classic player career arc for a 2B, which makes him a safe bet to continue producing the lines he has. Being a hometown kid, I’m sure that at the end of the arbitration process he’d give the Pirates an opportunity to make an extension offer, but I feel by the time that happens a few things will have occurred. Hanson should be ready to take over at 2B (assuming he fails at SS, a fairly safe bet), Walker will be on the downside of his prime years and commanding 10M+ a year from any suitor. As much as I love the Pine-Richland grad, I just don’t see how that’s going to work for the Pirates at that amount.

Roto Wizard
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Roto Wizard
3 years 6 months ago

Also, I lol’d a bit when you said ‘positive press’ and ‘pirates’, in the same sentence.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
3 years 6 months ago

I’ll echo some of the others who disagree with there being any urgency for an extension. Walker is under control through 2016, so he will hit free agency as a 31 year old. He doesn’t hit a ton of HR so his arbitration prices will remain affordable. I think you wait and see here. You can always extend him prior to 2015 with 2 years of control left. He’s never going to be a big money guy so there is minimal risk in letting him play his contract out.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
3 years 6 months ago

BTW, I say this as someone who loves Neil Walker and fully gets the hometown hero value that he has.

maguro
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maguro
3 years 6 months ago

Agreed, I don’t think they need to be in a rush to secure Walker’s age 31 and 32 seasons.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
3 years 6 months ago

Martin Prado’s 4/40 deal a season away from FA may be reasonable for Walker.

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