Yankees Rescue Neil Walker from Value Bin

At least 236 major-league players will earn more than Neil Walker in 2018.

Among second basemen alone, 18 are expected to receive something better than the $4 million the New York Yankees guaranteed to pay Walker, who remained available into the middle of March.

Walker has produced seven straight seasons of at least two wins. He ranks 61st amongst position players in WAR (11.7) since the start of the 2014 season. He was ranked by former FanGraphs manager editor Dave Cameron as 11th-best free agent available this winter.

But Walker became a face of baseball’s historically cold stove this winter — one that has been particularly unpleasant for the middle class of free agent.

There are obviously some caveats with Walker. He’s on the wrong side of 30. He’s had some nagging injuries. And, for a number of clubs, luxury tax is acting more like a hard cap this winter. The Dodgers, for instance, have spent only $4 million on free agents this offseason. There is no mechanism forcing owners to spend. Walker’s former club, the Pirates, have not signed a free agent to a major-league deal this offseason.

Even while lacking the burden of a qualifying offer and the attendant compensation, no market apparently ever developed for Walker. He accepted a one-year contract on March 12 despite the FanGraphs crowd forecasting a three-year, $39 million deal.

While this was not the deal Walker wanted, or that he expected, it is a great deal for the Yankees.

Not only does the addition of Walker at just $5 million permit New York to remain below the luxury-tax threshold but also allows the club to address one of the few question marks in their lineup — in this case, with a player projected to record a 111 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR over 595 plate appearances this year.

The switch-hitting Walker has always been better from the left side the plate, and he produced a 127 wRC+ mark against right-handed pitching last season (67 wRC+ as a right-handed hitter). For his career, he has a 121 mark against right-handed pitching and a 91 mark against lefties.

While the Yankees already had a formidable lineup, they were a bit heavy on right-handed batters and most of their power is on the right side in the form of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Giancarlo Stanton. Last year, the club ranked only 14th in baseball in home runs by lefties despite playing in one of the more favorable left-handed hitters’ parks in the game. It’s probably fair to assume that Walker’s HR/FB of 10% to his pull side last season will improve this year.

Furthermore, the signing allows the Yankees to be more patient with prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar if they feel the need be. For what it’s worth, Torres has struggled some this spring.

Walker figures to platoon with Ronald Torreyes or Brandon Drury at second base. The left-handed Tyler Wade was also in the mix but suffered a wrist injury over the weekend, though it is not serious.

While the Yankees could eventually have too many infielders for too few infield spots, that’s not a bad problem to have. And the Yankees are paying a starting-caliber player in Walker at a utility-player price. At this price, Walker will have value to the Yankees and other clubs.

Walker is hardly alone amongst free agents who have struggled to find suitors this offseason. Over the weekend, Lance Lynn and Jonathan Lucroy signed one-year deals while Jake Arrieta agreed to a three-year deal below his initial asks.

Below is an updated version of a table I published last week, which in this case reveals that the middle class of free agents has agreed to deals roughly 38% below the crowd’s dollar forecast. I defined “middle class” as those players whom the FanGraphs crowd forecast to sign deals of $45 million and less. (From 2012 to -17, the same class of player fell 19% below the crowd’s estimate.)

(Note: The players highlighted in gold exceeded crowd expectations. All nine are relief pitchers.)

The Middle Class of Free Agents
Top 50 Rank Player Crowd Actual Difference %
11 Neil Walker $39.0 $5.0 -$34.0 -87.2%
12 CC Sabathia $26.0 $10.0 -$16.0 -61.5%
13 Todd Frazier $42.0 $17.0 -$25.0 -59.5%
14 Jay Bruce $39.0 $39.0 $0.0 0.0%
16 Brandon Morrow $18.0 $21.0 $3.0 16.7%
19 Addison Reed $27.0 $16.8 -$10.2 -37.8%
20 Jarrod Dyson $16.0 $7.5 -$8.5 -53.1%
21 Eduardo Nunez $33.0 $8.0 -$25.0 -75.8%
22 Mike Minor $27.0 $28.0 $1.0 3.7%
23 Jonathan Lucroy $33.0 $6.5 -$26.5 -80.3%
24 Bryan Shaw $21.0 $27.0 $6.0 28.6%
25 Logan Morrison $20.0 $6.5 -$13.5 -67.5%
26 Joe Smith $12.0 $15.0 $3.0 25.0%
27 Anthony Swarzak $14.0 $14.0 $0.0 0.0%
28 Jaime Garcia $36.0 $10.0 -$26.0 -72.2%
29 Yonder Alonso $20.0 $16.0 -$4.0 -20.0%
30 Jason Vargas $20.0 $16.0 -$4.0 -20.0%
31 Juan Nicasio $16.0 $17.0 $1.0 6.3%
32 Pat Neshek $16.0 $16.3 $0.3 1.9%
33 Carlos Gonzalez $22.0 $8.0 -$14.0 -63.6%
34 Carlos Gomez $24.0 $4.0 -$20.0 -83.3%
35 Andrew Cashner $22.0 $16.0 -$6.0 -27.3%
36 Tony Watson $12.0 $8.5 -$3.5 -29.2%
37 Michael Pineda $16.0 $10.0 -$6.0 -37.5%
38 Jake McGee $24.0 $27.0 $3.0 12.5%
39 Tommy Hunter $12.0 $18.0 $6.0 50.0%
40 Steve Cishek $12.0 $13.0 $1.0 8.3%
41 Jhoulys Chacin $20.0 $15.5 -$4.5 -22.5%
42 Lucas Duda $18.0 $3.5 -$14.5 -80.6%
43 Alex Avila $16.0 $8.3 -$7.7 -48.1%
44 Cameron Maybin $16.0 $3.5 -$12.5 -78.1%
46 Howie Kendrick $16.0 $7.0 -$9.0 -56.3%
47 Brandon Kintzler $14.0 $10.0 -$4.0 -28.6%
48 Welington Castillo $18.0 $15.0 -$3.0 -16.7%
49 Doug Fister $8.0 $4.0 -$4.0 -50.0%
50 Jon Jay $8.0 $3.0 -$5.0 -62.5%
Totals $753.0 $470.9 -$282.1 -37.5%

A one-year, $5 million deal for a player of Walker’s caliber is probably not what anyone was expecting. While it’s a poor deal for the player, it’s a steal for the club. The Yankees are a super team that became stronger.

We hoped you liked reading Yankees Rescue Neil Walker from Value Bin by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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As a Red Sox fan, I’m bummed that the Yankees got a steal like this. As for Walker, playing half his games in Yankee Stadium should give his numbers a sweet boost for free agency next year. In that regard, he made out better than Moustakas.