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.