Friday, December 11, 2015

Neil Walker: We Knew This Was Coming

I mean, I wrote about it over the summer and updated it last month. Here are the basic facts:
  • Neil Walker has been the Pirates' second baseman for six straight seasons. In the entire history of the Pirates, they've had only four players with six or more seasons of 110 games or more at second base: Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, with 13; Claude Ritchey, with six from 1901 to 1906, with six; Johnny Ray, with six from 1982 to 1987; and Walker.
  • Walker is also a hometown boy, born and raised in the Steel City.
  • He's been an above-average hitter every season. Not just above-average among second baseman, a generally weaker-hitting lot, but among all National League hitters, every year.
  • He's a switch-hitter, and while he's considerably better batting left (.276/.344/.459 career slash line) than right (.258/.316/.335), that's OK, because nearly four-fifths of his plate appearances are from the left side, and he provided balance to a very right-leaning Pirates lineup. (Although, as I pointed out here, Pirates batters fare well against right-handed pitchers nonetheless.)
  • He's generally considered to be an average second baseman, who makes up for somewhat limited range with a strong throwing arm and good positioning.
  • He earned $8 million in 2015. He's eligible for his third year of arbitration in 2016, and generally assumed to be in line for a raise to $10-$11 million. He's a free agent after the upcoming season.
  • He'll be 31 next September.
So the dilemma for the Pirates was that they had a solid, durable performer in a key position who's going to get both expensive and old in a hurry. As I said in September, if Walker remains an above-average hitter and regular second baseman for each of the next four seasons, he'll be the first player in this century to do so (though Robinson Cano could accomplish it in 2016). So the odds are against him remaining this good as he goes through his thirties, when he's also going to be expensive.

If the Pirates were going to trade him, his value is probably higher during this offseason than it'll be at any time in the upcoming season, since every day closer to his free agency reduces his value to his new team. So the Pirates traded him to the Mets for left-handed starter Jon Niese.

There are two ways to look at the trade. First, what does it do to the Pirates infield? Here's how it looks now:

There are a few issues there.
  • The last time Morse played even 100 games at first was...well, never. His career high is 85, and that was in 2011. He's been healthy enough to stay in the lineup more than 100 games only three times in his career, and he'll be 34 on Opening Day.
  • Harrison has played only 99 games at second in his career, but in fairness, he's been good in those games. He probably represents no downgrade, and very possibly an uptick, on defense compared to Walker. The greater concern is his bat; if you exclude his All-Star 2014 season, he's been a below-average hitter (if only slightly) every year of his career.
  • Mercer's just a year younger than Walker and coming off his worst year at bat (.244/.293/.320 slash line).
  • I like Kang a lot. When his season ended in September, he was the Pirates' best hitter since the All-Star break. But it's not clear when, or how well, he'll come back from his gruesome injury.
Look, the concerns about Morse and Mercer would be there regardless of Walker's trade. Would the Pirates be better in April with Walker at second and Harrison available to play to third in case Kang isn't ready or needs to be eased into the lineup? Sure. But as I said, every day after the season starts, Walker's value will diminish. The Pirates could keep him as a Kang insurance policy, but his value as a trade piece would erode.

The second way of looking at the trade starts with the realization that the infield isn't the Pirates' only concern. Forty percent of their starting rotation, representing every pitcher with the initials J or A, is gone--A.J. Burnett to retirement, J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million free agent contract with Toronto. Those are two holes the team needed to fill. Niese, 29, played second fiddle the Mets' young guns in the starting rotation last year, but he's one of only 19 pitchers in the majors with 140 or more innings pitched in each of the past six seasons, over which he's compiled a 3.86 ERA. Now, I'm not going to overstate things--that's actually a below-average ERA for the period, and last year (4.13 ERA) was not a good one for Niese. Among 38 National League ERA qualifiers, his 15% strikeout rate was the second-lowest, and his 7% walk rate was the 18th highest. On the other hand, here's what I said the last time the Pirates acquired a lefty starter:
In pitching coach Ray Searage we trust...[The] left-handed starter hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 2010, including this year, when he racked up a 4.64 ERA playing for Seattle, which plays in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Yes, the Pirates need a starter now that they've put A.J. Burnett on the disabled list with a sore elbow, but is [he] the answer?
That was at the trade deadline this year, and the pitcher was none other than the aforementioned J.A. Happ, who responded with a 7-2 record and a 1.85 ERA in eleven starts in Pittsburgh. And while Happ parlayed his success into his deal with Toronto, Niese is under contract for 2016 ($9 million), 2017 ($10 million team option, $500,000 buyout), and 2018 ($11 million team option, $500,000 buyout). So if Searage can work his magic (possibly getting him to use his sinker more, which he threw just 18% of the time), the Pirates could have a steady No. 3 starter behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano for the next three seasons.

Ideally, I suppose, the Pirates would've kept Walker and gotten a pitcher of Niese's caliber or better via free agency. But realistically, that wasn't going to happen. And as good as Walker's been, signing him up for several years--which would've been necessary if the Pirates were to keep him--would have been a huge risk, given to the likely effects of age, especially on a middle infielder. Dealing a year of Walker for three of Niese sounds about right.

That being said, I think it's inevitable that if the Pirates stumble next year, regardless of how Niese does, we're going to hear a lot about how Walker's absence cast a long shadow, or ripped the heart and soul out of the team, or looms over the season, or some hackneyed metaphor.

No comments:

Post a Comment