Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pirates Middle Infield - 2013

The middle of the Bucco infield, much like the corners, will look the same in 2013. Neil Walker and Clint Barmes will man 2B and SS, but with more questions this season than last.

Walker, 27, continued his string of consistent years at the plate, putting together a line of .280/.342/.426 with 14 HR, 69 RBI, an OPS+ of 114 and a WAR of 3.3. He also adds versatility in the lineup, batting anywhere from 2-5, and is a switch-hitter, both pluses. His fielding has been more than adequate, too. His range the last two seasons has been a bit above league average, and his UZR was in the plus zone for the first time at 1.4 in 2012.

The questions? His contract and his back. Walker is a Super Two player, and will be in line for arbitration during the next four seasons. The big debate is whether to sign him to a contract that would extend into a year or two of free agency, or whether it's better to just go through four seasons of arbitration, which eliminates cost certainy but does keep The Kid under team control until he's 31.

The salary figures we've seen thrown about are in the $3M range for 2013. That number will escalate each season afterward, but probably within a predictable range. Walker's numbers, as we've noted, are consistent, and he's likely established his general offensive production norms. So unless he has an unlikely breakout year, he'll remain an above-average but not elite second baseman, and shouldn't hit the Bucs with sticker shock if they decide to take the arb route.

His health will play into the contract decision. Walker is a big galoot - 6'3" and 205 pounds - and that lanky frame isn't ideal for the position. He went down with lower disc problems in late August and played just eight games afterward, providing a real concern for somebody who spent his first three pro seasons as a catcher. A herniated disc is not an uncommon baseball injury, and can often be treated by medication, injection and/or exercise, with surgery as a last option. But it can also be recurring and quite limiting to play through.

Given that, it's hard to see how the Pirates would offer Walker a deal that's not extremely team friendly, and it's just as hard to see how Walker would accept one with arbitration leverage, unless he decided to opt for a security blanket. But at any rate, if he stays in one piece, The Kid is the Bucs' everyday second baseman, though he may lose his ironman's role and get a blow from Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer or Brock Holt during the 2013 grind.

Shortstop will also go to Clint Barmes, 33, both by default and by virtue of the $5.5M he has coming to him in 2013. The Pirates got what they wanted out of his glove; his 14.4 UZR was a career high. But his offensive stats were the worst he compiled since 2006. That is somewhat misleading, though. He got off to about as miserable a start as possible in the early weeks of the season, then in the final four months played more like the SS the Pirates expected, hitting .256/6/37 over 314 AB, but still without an OBP worth noting.

He also showed a pretty big split at the plate, hitting .274 against lefties but just .217 against right handers (.240 lifetime). Worse, he K'ed 88 times in 383 PA against righties; his 2012 OBP of .243 was barely higher than his whiff rate of .230 against same side tossers. Both Josh Harrison (.270) and Jordy Mercer (.231) hit righties better, so we'd expect to see Barme's at-bats cut down, especially against RHP, in 2013.

Like most positions, the Pirates don't really have any internal competition to push the starters. Josh Harrison, 25, is the bat sub and Jordy Mercer, 26, the glove guy. Brock Holt, 24, showed some ability with the stick but not much with the mitt; possibly the staff can rework him into an adequate defender like they did with Harrison. Chase d'Arnaud, 25, has fallen off the map; he's hit .208 in the show and .255 at Indy, and those numbers have knocked him off his prospect perch. Alen Hansen, 19, is the bright star of the system, but he just completed a year in the Sally League and has a ways to go before reaching the bright lights.

The middle infield could be a strength if Walker is healthy and Barmes stays steady throughout the season. But both spots are wafer thin and there's no help in the immediate pipeline. We'd be surprised if the Pirate FO doesn't take a long look at a veteran backup to add to the bench next season.

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