Friday, October 18, 2013

Pittsburgh - Second Base 2014

Pretty simple, hey? Neil Walker has owned the spot since the short-lived reign of Akinori Iwamura in 2010. And that's not a bad thing. He's been a pretty consistent .275-.280, 12-15 HR guy and his fielding has improved every year at the position, one that he had played all of 21 times in the minors.

But a leak or two has sprung. The 28 year old had back problems that cost him a month in 2012, and an oblique took him out of action this season. He's a big guy for a middle infielder at 6' 3", 210 lbs and he may continue to have flexibility issues; it's hard to play second without dives, pivots and high slides.

More worrisome is the switch hitter's splits. In 2010-11, he was equally as dangerous from either side regarding his BA, though he did slug better from the left side. But in the last two years, a widening gap has emerged. In 2012, his line against righties was .291/.352/.472; against southpaws it was .246/.314/.288. The OPS was .824 v .612.

It was worse last year. Against RHP, The Kid's line was .256/.350/.455; against southpaws it was .225/.281/.238. The OPS was .805 v .518. Opposing managers have certainly noticed; Walker regularly gets turned around to the right side in the late innings, turning him from a blaster into a blooper. And the answer is not, as been floated around, to make him a full-time lefty. If you can't hit LHP from the right side, moving across the box doesn't seem like a promising fix.

It appears the league has gotten a little book on him batting from the right, and that in effect has made him, by the numbers, a platoon player. But with who? Jordy Mercer rakes lefties, but he's at short when they're on the hill, and Clint Barmes hits lefties every bit as badly as Neil, if he returns. Josh Harrison's career line against lefties is .256/.290/.346 with a .636 OPS, an improvement but not of very great magnitude.

Except for that lefty-righty thing, we wouldn't be too concerned about his hitting. True that he went icy during the playoffs, but his regular season performance, though streaky, matched his prior years in all his peripherals but batted ball in play, so it seems that he ran into a little bad luck with his BA in 2013.

His fielding is adequate and has gotten better, as his UZR/150 has improved every year, but he's never been mistaken for rangy, although he is excellent on balls in the air. Walker will be a fixture for the near term at the position. He's under team control through 2016, entering his second arb year (he was a Super Two player). The Kid made $3.3M last year and should be due a nice bump, and it looks like neither side is real interested in talking about a contract beyond then, when Walker will be entering his age 31 season.

This is another spot where the Pirates are dangerously thin, which is true of their entire infield. After Harrison and Mercer, there is no one behind him in the organization. Ivan DeJesus and Chase d'Arnaud were at Indy. DeJesus didn't make the 40-man roster, though he has MLB experience and hit .319 at Indy. He'll be a minor league FA and likely part with the organization. We're surprised that the Pirates didn't show a little more interest in him, but we'd guess they were looking for a little more glove.

d'Arnaud had hip and hand injuries, playing just 61 games at Indy  while hitting .233, and didn't get a September call. He does have an option left, so he could possibly return, although he's also in a liability in the field. And behind them is basically nothing exciting, unless Alen Hanson moves from SS to second. Though 20, he may be approaching the big team's radar scree as he's already at Altoona.

It should be noted that the second baseman of the future, Dilson Herrera, was sent to the Mets as part of the Marlon Byrd deal, and he and Hansen were the middle infield up-and-comers.

It's a position with a long and proud history in Pittsburgh, from Bill Mazeroski to Dave Cash to Rennie Stennett to Johnny Ray to Phil Garner to Carlos Garcia to Freddy Sanchez to Neil Walker. But the Pirate emphasis on stockpiling pitchers is having an impact on the everyday player pool, and there is no near term help in the organizational pipeline.

So we'd expect to see Neil manning the infield for awhile. He may get a blow every so often against a lefty, but he's the lynchpin. The Bucs won't get anyone to challenge him, but bide their time until a homegrown guy can make his way to Pittsburgh, whenever that may be; remember, there was no heir apparent when The Kid was moved from third to second.

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