With Andrew McCutchen under contract for the forseeable future, eyes have understandably turned towards Neil Walker. In terms of service time, Walker’s got 1+ years of big league service, but that “+” is big enough that he’ll almost certainly be a super two after 2012. That means he’ll go to arbitration a year early and end up with four years of arbitration instead of just three. If the Pirates are going to sign him to an extension, this means it’ll probably happen either this spring or in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 season, so that the arbitration process never really starts with him.
In the wake of McCutchen’s deal yesterday, Walker told Michael Sanserino that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh but that he also wants a fair deal. I suppose the implication there is that he won’t take a “hometown discount,” which is fine because I think that his hometown status is actually one of his stronger bargaining chips. MLB Trade Rumors took a look at what Walker might command if he were to sign an extension and figured that it’d take somewhere around $20 million to buy out his four arbitration years and in the $8 million neighborhood for every year after. Instinctively, that strikes me as just about right and I’ll always default to what Tim Dierkes thinks in a situation like this one.
The bigger question, though, is the one that Chris Mueller asked me when I was on his show discussing Andrew McCutchen’s contract last night (convienient podcasting link here, for those who missed the interview): Why should the Pirates want to extend Neil Walker? Is the only reason we want him extended because he’s from Pittsburgh? The basic answer I gave was that Walker’s a useful player and that getting some kind of payroll certainty for all of these young players as they reach arbitration is a non-insignificant thing for the Pirates. That’s certainly true, but that’s the sort of answer that I feel like as a TA, I’d mark down for partial credit and then underline the part of the test instructions that say, “Please provide the best answer to each question.”
The reality for Walker is that if he wants an extension now, he’s going to have to sign for less than he probably thinks he’s worth. Even though the team knows his arbitration years will start in 2013, they’ve got him under control for five more years and I’d have to think that they just want to see more of him before committing any kind of serious long-term money to him. Remember that just a few years ago in 2009 he was almost completely lost at the plate in Triple-A with a .311 OBP and that in 2010, he was a man without a position in spring training before his bat came around. His glove in the infield is still a question mark, even though he pretty clearly made some big strides at second base last year, and he struggled at the plate for big chunks of 2011.
This isn’t to call Walker’s usefullness into question: FanGraphs had him as a three-win player last year and Baseball-Reference had him down for 2 1/2 wins. At FanGraphs, that makes him the ninth most valuable second baseman in the big leagues and the fourth most valuable in the NL. That’s a good player, that’s a guy worth having in the lineup every day, that’s a guy worth extending. That’s not an All-Star, though, and given Walker’s age, not really a player that I’d consider a building block.
The difficulty in working out an extension is just that we don’t really know enough about Neil Walker as a Major Leaguer to accurately project what kind of player he’s going to be going forwards. He’s obviously better than the guy we saw flounder at Triple-A in 2009, but it’s not clear just how good he is. Is he the player that we saw through 2010? Was his improved plate patience that he occasionally flashed throughout 2011 something that will continue to grow? Were his struggles in May and June and August of last year indicative of something more ominous coming? Where did his early-season power surge come from last year and where did his it go after May? In short, it’s possible that Walker could develop into an Ian Kinsler-like hitter (probably with less home run power), because we’ve seen flashes of it since his call-up. It’s also possible that the inconsistencies we saw in 2011 are something he won’t ever get past and that that level of performance represents his ceiling. I’m not saying that an extension is impossible here, just that at this juncture in his career it’s likely that Walker thinks of himself in the Future All Stare Second Baseman role and wants to be paid accordingly, while the Pirates would probably want to be more conservative until they see more from him
To bring it all the way back around, though, there is a good reason that the Pirates should sign Walker to an extension before the 2013 season, and that’s his status as a super two. Four years of arbitration means that his salary will eventually escalate pretty high, and Walker strikes me as the type of guy that could end up being overvalued by the arbitration system. Because Walker has solid pop and because the Pirates have some hitters that could potentially be effective top-of-the-lineup guys (Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Starling Marte — note that there’s some projection involved here, too), I could see him batting third and racking up RBIs, despite not really improving on his performance from 2011. If that keeps happening, I could see the arbitration system paying him quite a bit more than he’s worth, which could create some difficult decision-making for the Pirates. Walker is obviously popular with Pirate fans and I’m not here to argue that he should or shouldn’t be; he’s a good player and he’s a hometown guy, of course he’s popular. I will say that while I’m all for this front office’s emotionless approach to just about everything, I’d be awfully careful to avoid a situation where Walker’s arbitration number gets high enough that the team needs to consider trading him, even though he’s a productive every day player. That’s where the benefit of a Walker extension this spring or next fall really comes it; it keeps Walker from getting into a Garrett Jones situation where he’s obviously useful, but his usefulness will be outweighed by his price within a year or two of arbitration.
All things considered, I expect the Pirates will extend Walker unless something goes terribly wrong for him in 2012, I just think that it won’t happen until maybe November or early December. That will hopefully give the team another 150 games worth of data to figure out what kind of player Walker is and what kind of player he’ll be, and that sort of knowledge is invaluable in determining what he’s worth.