Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Will Walker Walk?

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Pirates beat writer Rob Biertempfel had an article about Pirates second baseman Neil Walker entitled, "Despite Hometown Ties, Walker Knows Time with Pirates Likely Nearing End." Biertempfel pointed out that:
  • Walker is eligible for salary arbitration next year, and can be a free agent after next season.
  • He's making $8 million this year, and could probably expect to earn $10 million next year.
  • He's 30 years old and has had back problems in the past.
  • Josh Harrison has played primarily second base since returning from the disabled list in August, and started the first two games of the recent Cardinals series there instead of Walker.
  • Given that writing on the wall and Walker's looming free agency, "it's possible the Pirates will jump that deadline this offseason by non-tendering or trading him."
A couple comments: First, it's true that Harrison started instead of Walker on September 4 and 5 against St. Louis , but Walker had had only one day off since the All-Star break prior to the first game, and was batting just .206 with two extra-base hits (both doubles) in his last 13 games. In the second game, the starter was Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, and Walker is hitting just .239 with a .584 OPS against lefties this year, while Harrison's numbers against southpaws are a .289 batting average and .717 OPS. As I pointed out earlier, a platoon of Walker and Harrison at second base makes a lot of sense. Walker's already played more games this year than any season since 2011, so he's not exactly getting phased out. Second, non-tendering means not offering a player a contract--in effect, releasing him. I don't see any way that the Pirates would non-tender Walker; that's what you do with filler-type guys who have no role with your club and don't have a lot of value to other clubs. Trading him, though, that's another story.

That prompted another Tribune-Review writer, Rob Rossi, to opine "What A Joke It Would Be If the Pirates Let Walker Go." His argument: Walker, a Pittsburgh native, is not only one of the best second basemen in the game, but he's also a key member of the franchise and the community, and the Pirates should do what it takes to keep him. He suggests four years, $46 million. 

I've given you the link to Rossi's article, so you can see what you think of it. (Not relevant to anything here, but Rossi wrote, "Walker might be the Pirates' best second baseman since Bill Mazeroski." Um, Johnny Ray says hello.) I want to focus on his idea of a four year, $46 million contact.

First, let's take a look at the Pirates who can become free agents in the next few seasons. I'm going to list them by year and their age at the start of their free agency seasons:
  • 2016: Pitcher Anthony Bastardo (30), infielder Sean Rodriguez (30), pitcher Joakim Soria (31), pitcher J.A. Happ (33), first baseman Corey Hart (34). (I'm assuming A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez stick to their guns and retire.)
  • 2017: Outfielder Travis Snider (29), first baseman Pedro Alvarez (30), catcher Francisco Cervelli (31), Walker (31), pitcher Mark Melancon (32), first baseman Travis Ishikawa (33), catcher Chris Stewart (35), first baseman Mike Morse (35)
  • 2018: Pitcher Tony Watson (33), pitcher Francisco Liriano (34), pitcher Charlie Morton (34).
You figure the Pirates are going to want to keep some of those guys, right? Rodriguez and Happ out of next year's class, Cervelli and maybe Melancon the following year, possibly all three of the 2018 pitchers, if they're healthy. Now, I don't care how much a player makes, nor how much a multimillionaire spends on his team. You can make an argument that a player like Andrew McCutchen is worth $30 million per year, and if he makes that, more power to him; if Pirates owner Bob Nutting spends that much, it's not my money. But the Pirates have to have some sort of budget, I figure, and that budget will limit how much they can spend on players. Paying a lot of money for a player is relevant only if it prevents a team from being able to afford other players.

So does spending $46 million for four years of Walker make sense? Without even looking at the dollars, let's look at age. Walker will be 30 at the start of next year, so the Pirates would be signing him for his age 30, 31, 32, and 33 seasons. Walker's a good-hitting second baseman--above-average park-adjusted OPS every year he's been in the majors--whose bat carries his adequate glove. How realistic is it to expect him to stay in the lineup and keep up his above-average hitting in his thirties?

To answer this, I looked at every second baseman who qualified for the batting championship since 2000. Here are the regular (defined as 75% of their games played at second) second baseman with an above-average OPS in their 30s:
  • Age 30: Ronnie Belliard, Robinson Cano, Mark Ellis, Aaron Hill, Tadahito Iguchi, Howie Kendrick, Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips, Brian Roberts, Dan Uggla, Chase Utley, Ben Zobrist (12 total)
  • Age 31: Robinson Cano, Orlando Hudson, Ian Kinsler, Mark Loretta, Placido Polanco, Brian Roberts, Dan Uggla, Chase Utley (8 total)
  • Age 32: Roberto Alomar, Bret Boone, Robinson Cano, Ray Durham, Jeff Kent, Mark Loretta, Placido Polanco, Ben Zobrist (8 total)
  • Age 33: Roberto Alomar, Bret Boone, Ray Durham, Mark Grudzielanek, Jeff Kent, Ian Kinsler (6 total)
In the past 16 seasons, no regular second baseman who's been in the lineup enough to qualify for the batting title has been an above-average hitter every year between ages 30 and 33. Robinson Cano, who's 32, is three quarters of the way there, but he's the only second baseman to appear on the list three times. In other words, he is the only regular second baseman in this century to have been an above-average hitter in more than half of the four years between age 30 and 33. Chase Utley put up consistently good numbers, but he missed 47 games when he was 31, 59 when he was 32, and 79 when he was 33, so qualified for the batting title only twice. Ben Zobrist was an above-average hitter who qualified for the batting title every year but he played only 58 games at second when he was 31 and 79 games there when he was 33. The combination of staying healthy and staying good, it seems, starts and ends with one second baseman, Robinson Cano, with an honorable mention to Ben Zobrist.

So does a four-year contract for a 30 year old second baseman who's good, but obviously not quite Robinson Cano, make a lot of sense, regardless of money? No, it probably doesn't. And the conviction behind that "probably" increases if the contract sucks up so much payroll money that it prevents the team from affording younger or better players. 

Look, I like Walker. He really is one of the best second basemen in the game; I'd put him in the top ten or so. But as he ages, his defense isn't going to get better, his offense is likely to decline, and he's likely to start missing time. If the Pirates can sign him to, say, three years with a hometown discount, fine. I think Harrison makes more sense as a super-utility guy than an everyday second basemen anyway. But blowing a lot of money on a lot of years of Walker seems counter-productive, his place of birth notwithstanding.

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