Sunday, January 29, 2012

Will Neil Walker Be Extended?

The secondary sidebar to the off season was the backburner story of Neil Walker's extension. Walker has accumulated one year and 166 days of service time during his young career. That means he has one more season at minimum wage and then he seems all but certain of Super Two status and four years of arbitration eligibility.

Walker has been a great local story ever since being the Pirates top pick in 2004. A multi-sport star out of Gibsonia's Pine-Richland High School and the son of a former MLB pitcher (Tom), the Pittsburgh Kid was called up as a utility infielder in 2010 and became the starting second baseman shortly thereafter, replacing Aki Iwomura. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

How unlikely was that? Drafted as a catcher, he was moved to third base in 2007, only to see Pittsburgh trade for Andy LaRoche and draft Pedro Alvarez the following year. The Pirates had written him off as a role player, and used him at first, second, third and the outfield at Indy in 2010 before beckoning him to the show.

His bat was OK but not overwhelming in the minors, usually in the .275 BA, 12-15 homers and 75 RBI range. Walker has kept to that line in 286 games as a Bucco, hitting .280/24/149, with an OPS of 108. A switch hitter, his splits are pretty even, with a little more power as a lefty, as is often the case.

A lot has been made of his clutch hitting, but his RISP is .286, just a shade over his regular BA. He's a doubles hitter (66 in the past two years) and the recipient of having the wheels of McCutch, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley ahead of him in the order. And that's not bad, considering that he has very little protection behind him in the lineup. As a Bucco, he's batted in every spot but leadoff.

His glove was fairly brutal at the start, with an UZR/150 of -17.1 in 2010. Then again, he had all of 21 pro games at the position before the Aki implosion, and he was thrown head first into the fire. Walker worked hard in the off season, spent the spring at Maz's knee, and to his credit, he turned himself into a much more competent fielder last season with a rating of -2.5.

Walker improved his BIZ (balls in zone) conversion rate to 80% (75% in 2010) and made 53 plays out of his zone, up from just 11 two seasons ago. And he does a great job of running down flares and going upstairs for liners.

Still, The Kid's range isn't great, balls get tangled up at his feet, and the DP turn is still a work in progress. The guy may be athletic, but at 6'3" and 215 pounds...well, not many high school football heroes end up in the middle infield. If you hear a Pirate broadcaster describe a ball being "tackled" by a Bucco fielder, you can bet the ranch that he's watching Walker.

There's been talk about returning him to third, where his bat should play because of his glove. He's much stronger playing at a reactive rather than rangy position and was an All-D player at the hot corner in AAA. But any corner infield moves in Pittsburgh ultimately depend on Pedro and where he ends up, either at first, third, or out of town.

With that background, there's no sense of urgency to lock up Walker like there is for McCutch. The Kid is a couple years older (26), no cinch to stay at second, and under team control for five more seasons.  But we think the smart move is to lock up his arb seasons and then backload his free agent years with team options just to provide some cost certainty down the road by eliminating the arb guessing game.

We're speculating along the lines of a Jose Tabata type deal. Walker would get a $1M signing bonus, a 2012 salary of $750K, and $2M - $3M - $4M - $5M during his arb years with a team option or two. That's $15.75M guaranteed over 5 years, and would keep the Pittsburgh Kid in Pittsburgh through the 2016 season, when he'll be 31.

But...yep. there's always a but. There's no question that Walker is a home-town boy who is a fan favorite and seems comfortable here. But is he willing to discount himself to stay local? Four years of arbitration is a pretty powerful financial lever for an established, everyday player.

For the Pirate FO, it's a matter of leveling out the cost and protecting themselves against being bushwhacked by arbitration. For Walker, it's a choice between a security blanket and potentially much larger paychecks. If he's not signed to an extension this year, we'd expect the Bucs to push hard for a deal before arbitration begins in 2013 rather than risk going year-to-year.

It's hard to read the FO; they haven't even come to terms with Garrett Jones or Casey McGehee yet.  So it's possible they want to wait a year to see if Walker is indeed a long-term piece, or prefer to deal with him on an annual basis. That's skating on thin ice. Another consistent season of play could start Walker off at $2.5-3M when he goes to arbitration, and the ante gets higher every year.

But if they're hot to land Walker now, they have a funny way of showing it. The Kid told Bill Brink of the Post-Gazette last month that "We haven’t had any discussions this off season. We have had conversations but we haven’t been able to come to common ground."

And there it sits; we're not even sure whose court the ball is in.


WilliamJPellas said...

Walker would be a bargain at the numbers you suggest, Ron. I think it will take about another $1 million per to get him to sign the kind of deal you suggest. Even at that, he would be a pretty good "bang for the buck" player and he would give us some cost control. However, he would be a REAL bargain at those numbers if he were switched back to third. You'd have to believe that's where he'll land if Pedro flames out in Pittsburgh---a distinct possibility.

Ron Ieraci said...

Then we do agree, Will - I built in roughly a $1M discount per arb year.