With word that Neal Huntington is hard at work on his checklist by signing Andrew McCutchen to his long term deal, attention should turn to the next most logical extension candidate on the team — Neil Walker.
Walker’s journey through the Pirates’ system has been well-documented. Much e-ink has been spilled over the fact that he’s a “Pittsburgh Kid”. Originally the riskiest classification of all draft picks (a high school catcher), Walker was soon moved off the position to 3B. Ironically, it was Littlefield’s belief in the staying power of Ronny Paulino that led to this move. Some of it also had to do with the wear and tear that Walker was incurring each year at the position, as well. He just did not have the stamina to last a whole season back there, as evidenced by his late season disappearances at the plate while in the minors. His defense was probably not major-league caliber, either, thanks to problems blocking the plate.
Due to his great degree of athleticism, Walker made himself into quite a 3B in short order. He was considered the top defensive 3B in the International League one year. However, Walker’s path to the majors as a 3B was blocked by the presence of uber-prospect Pedro Alvarez when Alvarez was drafted in 2008. At that point, Walker was considered as a super-utility guy and started to work out a little bit at 2B.
Walker got a cup of coffee in September 2009 and flamed out terribly in limited action. It seemed that AAA may be his peak. But once the calendar flipped to 2010, everything changed.
Whether it was the fact that Walker was settling in at an age-appropriate level (he was also 1-2 years younger than his competition) or his natural development just clicked, Walker started to terrorize AAA in 2010 to the point that the Pirates called him up in late May when the Iwamura Chronicles ran their course. Walker was installed at 2B and hasn’t left since.
His defense was rough in 2010, but the whole team was rough in 2010. It greatly improved in 2011, especially his range, to the point that there is no longer any discussion of whether it is still an “experiment” to keep him there. Walker’s bat, especially for a 2B, is league average (.322 wOBA/105 OPS+ in 2011). Coupled with improving defense that at worst will be league average and you have a young player that is worthy of being considered for an extension.
Unlike the Andrew McCutchen contract, there are not a lot of great baselines or comparables for Neil Walker. In general, 2B is not considered a big ticket position under the auspices that any SS prospect that falls short on range can be converted to 2B. And it seems like the 2B that have been extended all have much different skill sets than Walker.
Chase Utley was in a class by himself when he received his extension in 2007 for 7 years/$85M. Utley was entering his first arbitration year and coming off back-to-back seasons of a 915 and 906 OPS (132 OPS+/125 OPS+) with 30 HR’s and 15 SB’s. Walker simply is not at that level and will most likely not be at that level, considering that he is at the same age now (26) as Utley was during his first of those 2 monster seasons. There’s nothing wrong with not being Chase Utley.
At age 25, Brandon Phillips (another prospect that was written off, but by a previous club) was completing his first full season and put up a .276/.324/.427 (751 OPS) season with 17 HR’s and 25 SB’s. Aside from the SB’s, it’s somewhat similar to Walker’s 2011 season line of .273/.334/.408 (742 OPS) with 12 HR’s and 9 SB’s. The Reds made Phillips replicate that season in 2007 before they signed him to a 4 year/$27M extension going into Phillips’ first arbitration-eligible season. The Pirates have already seen Walker for nearly 2 full seasons, thanks to his late May call-up in 2010.
As a result of that call-up, Walker is going to be a Super 2 eligible player after this season, as he currently has 1 year 166 days of service time. That will always add a wrinkle to the potential negotiations, but it’s never insurmountable.
The last data point to add in to the discussion would be Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers. Kinsler in 2006 hit .286/.347/.454 (801 OPS, 105 OPS+) with 14 HR’s and 11 SB’s. In terms of traditional counting stats, that’s most similar to Walker’s lines. However, Kinsler has blossomed into a consistent 20-20 HR/SB threat, with multiple 30-30 seasons under his belt as well. It’s hard to see Walker developing into that at this point in his career. Kinsler signed a 5 year/$22M deal in February 2008 going into his last minimum-scale pre-arbitration year. His deal paid him $500K in 2008, $3M in 2009, $4M in 2010, $6M in 2011, and $7M this year, with a club option for $10M next year.
Even though Walker is not to the level of Kinsler, Kinsler’s deal could still be considered as a template for Walker’s potential deal. Allowing for the salary escalation in the 4 years since that deal was signed, Kinsler’s deal is very fair for Walker in 2012. If Walker is a consistent 2.5 to 3 WAR player, that deal shown above would be a win for the Pirates.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see a Walker deal done by the mid-point of this season. The McCutchen contract seems like the domino that fell after the Burnett trade showed a committment level to the rest of the players. Now that McCutchen is locked up, Walker is the next logical candidate to cement into place.