Right after the Andrew McCutchen extension in the spring, I posited that Neil Walker may be the next Pirate signed to a long-term extension. There were some discussions between the two sides, but it has been suspected that the Pirates were leaning more towards a Jose Tabata-style of deal and Walker wanted to be paid on a more moderate scale.
That post was prior to the start of the 2012 season, so the only data points (excluding the cup of coffee in September 2009) were Walker’s 2010 (811 OPS, .351 wOBA, 118 wRC+, 2.0 WAR) and Walker’s 2011 (742 OPS, .322 wOBA, 103 wRC+, 3.0 WAR). At this point in 2012, Walker is continuing to be an ascending asset for the Pirates with a 799 OPS, .369 wOBA, 120 wRC+, 3.0 WAR). Among NL second basemen, Walker is ranked 2nd in wOBA, wRC+, and WAR behind only Aaron Hill.
Another positive trendline is Walker’s defensive rating by UZR. To date in 2012, Walker is posting a positive 2.0. He has turned himself from a liability in 2010 to a very competent 2B defensively. Coupled with an above-average wOBA, Walker is an above-average 2B and a valuable commodity to the Pirates.
Within the post from this spring, I stated that the closest comparable to Walker at this point of his career was Ian Kinsler. Going into his last pre-arbitration year, Kinsler signed a 5 year/$22M deal with an option for 2013. However, that first year was only $500K; Walker will be a Super 2 player and get 4 cracks at arbitration. With Walker already at 3.0 WAR, let’s conservatively say he will end with a 4.0 WAR, especially factoring in that he has been on a huge hot streak to get to these current numbers in 2012. In his first two full seasons, Walker will have averaged 3.5 WAR. On a crude $5M/WAR estimate, Walker would be a $17.5M player. Using a 20-40-60-80% arbitration estimate for a Super 2 player, Walker could theoretically get $3.5M/$7M/$10.5M/$14M.
Those are some huge numbers that would total up to a 4 year/$35M contract. That’s a lot and too much for the Pirates to tie up Walker. That potential contract is comparable to Robinson Cano’s 4 year/$30M contract ($3M, $6M, $9M, $10M, plus $2M buyout on a option year). At that point in his career, Cano was averaging 2.4 WAR, but coming off of a 4.9 WAR season.
Going back to Kinsler’s contract, he was paid $3M, $4M, $6M, and $7M in his four guaranteed years, with the last year being his 1st free agent year. With some slight tweaking to the numbers, a half million here and a million there, that would be a very acceptable framework to me for Walker’s contract.
Walker is 26 in 2012, so at the end of his team control he would be in his age-30 season, still in his theoretical prime. Add on an option year with a minimal buyout and you have a deal. One of the arguments to not sign Walker is that 2B is not a position you want to lock up as you can always move a SS over to 2B. I agree with that, but at this point the Pirates don’t have anyone in their system that is pushing Walker at all. Even if you believe that Alen Hanson will eventually slide over to 2B, he is probably 3 years away from sniffing the majors. There’s no crime in having a logjam of good players, with Walker having enough athleticism to slide back to 3B or the OF, if necessary.
Walker seems to be taken for granted by some Pirate fans. But at this point in his career, Walker is an above-average starter and still ascending upward on his career path. Establishing cost certainty on a key player for the Pirates will help the budget analysis moving forward for the front office.