Like dozens of other players, Neil Walker is an established free agent still looking for work as the second week of March approaches. Given his solid track record of production and lack of attachment to a qualifying offer, that would normally rate as a surprise, but he’s just one of several middle-class free agents left out in the cold this winter. Despite being linked to a handful of teams, the 32-year-old switch-hitter hasn’t found a deal to his liking. If this report from the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is accurate, it’s tough to blame Walker, whom the Royals allegedly sought to bring into camp on a minor-league deal with a non-roster invitation.
It would be inaccurate to call Walker a star: he’s never, for example, made an All-Star team in his nine-year major-league career, which began with the Pirates in September 2009. But Walker has been quite consistent, producing an average of 2.7 WAR over the past eight seasons, with very little variance. His low of 1.9 WAR was compiled in 110 games in 2010 after being recalled on May 25. His high of 3.7 was set in 2016, his lone full season with the Mets — that, despite missing all of September due to a herniated disc that required season-ending surgery. Though he missed five weeks with a hamstring strain in 2017 and was traded from the Mets to the Brewers on August 12, Walker turned in a typical Neil Walker season: 2.1 WAR in 111 games with a .265/.362/.439 batting line and 114 wRC+.
Indeed, Walker is a career .272/.341/.437/115 wRC+ hitter who’s been strong against righties (122 wRC+) and subpar but still playable against lefties (91 wRC+), with his recent season splits against southpaws all over the place amid smaller sample sizes. While never a threat to win a Gold Glove, he’s been only slightly below average at second base over the course of his career (-4 UZR/150, -3 DRS/150), sure-handed but a bit lacking in range. He was pretty typical at the keystone in 2017 (-2 UZR, -5 DRS) and branched out to gain experience at the infield corners, starting eight games at first base (which he’d never played in the majors) and four at third (which he last played in 2010, after spending 2007-09 there in the minors).
Walker doesn’t have the strongest track record of durability, having topped 140 games just twice (2011 and -15) in the past seven years and playing just 224 games over the past two seasons. That said, his 2013 and -14 disabled-list stints were for nonrecurring ailments (a right hand laceration and appendectomy, respectively) and shouldn’t be viewed through the same lens as his more recent back and hamstring injuries. Even if those latter-day injuries are giving teams pause, it’s clear that he can help somebody as an above-average hitter who can hold down second base and help out at a couple of other positions. Via both Steamer and ZiPS, he projects to produce 1.8 WAR in less than a full complement of playing time (100 games in the former, 119 in the latter) with corresponding wRC+ marks of 111 and 108, respectively.
After making $17.2 million in 2017 as one of the rare players to accept a qualifying offer, Walker reportedly discussed a multiyear extension with the Mets for three years and $40 million according to Marc Carig (though it’s not clear which side proposed those terms). Via FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, Walker entered the offseason in search of a four-year deal, while Dave Cameron estimated that he’d get a three-year, $33 million contract and ranked him 11th among this year’s crop of free agents. Our crowdsourced figure even topped that slightly at $35.7 million. Both marks are more or less in line with our in-house contract estimator widget using that 1.8 WAR forecast and fairly standard estimates of $9 million per win with a 5% rate of inflation:
|2018||32||1.8||$9.0 M||$16.2 M|
|2019||33||1.3||$9.5 M||$12.3 M|
|2020||34||0.8||$9.9 M||$7.9 M|
Value: $9M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
Even using Tom Tango’s more conservative WARcel-based projection instead (based on a 6/3/1 weighting of the last three seasons’ WARs, with a 20% regression in the first year, a baseline decline of 0.4 WAR per year, and an additional decline of 0.1 WAR for every year over 30) yields an estimated value of $28.5 million for 3.0 WAR over three years.
Of course, Walker now appears unlikely to approach that figure because many of the teams to whom he’d previously been linked have made other plans. The Angels, who appeared to be an option in November, signed Zack Cozart to play third base and traded for Ian Kinsler to play second. The Mets considered bringing back Walker, but after re-signing Jose Reyes and Jay Bruce from last year’s underachieving squad, found a bargain in third baseman Todd Frazier, which pushed Asdrubal Cabrera back to second. The Yankees, who traded away Starlin Castro, dealt for Brandon Drury to provide some insurance if Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar aren’t ready.
At this late date, a few teams previously connected to Walker during the offseason stand out as potential landing spots, as follow.
After surprising the league by winning 86 games last year, they upgraded their outfield with the additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Despite that, they’re projected to win just 78 games, with second base (0.8 WAR between Villar, Eric Sogard and Hernan Perez) the weakest link in their lineup according to our depth charts.
Now in bargain-shopping mode — they’ve recently added Colby Rasmus, Pedro Alvarez and Danny Valencia to the fold via minor-league contracts with NRIs — they’re said to be “intrigued” by Walker. They have Jonathan Schoop at second base, and their current plan calls for Tim Beckham at third. The former 1/1 pick, who’s coming off a breakout 3.5 WAR season, has just 52 big-league innings at the position. But if the O’s plan to use him as the short half of a platoon with Walker, it’s not clear why they’d want to take much playing time away from Schoop and Manny Machado, who play the two positions with which Beckham is more acquainted.
In November, they expressed some interest in a reunion, in part because they don’t expect Jung-Ho Kang to get a work visa. Between that and the possibility that they deal Josh Harrison, who wants out and is making $10 million this year, they could have an opening.
Whit Merrifield is a thoroughly acceptable second baseman who produced 3.1 WAR last year and is forecast for 2.1 in 2018, but third base, where Cheslor Cuthbert and company are projected for 0.8 WAR (29th in MLB), could use Walker, as could their DH spot, where Jorge Soler and friends are projected for just 0.5 WAR. Obviously, they’ll have to make Walker a better offer than a minor-league contract with an NRI.
Adding a few more to the mix…
With Drury gone, the outlook is dreary, in that Chris Owings, Daniel Descalso and Nick Ahmed are forecast for an MLB-worst 0.3 WAR at second base. Owings owns a lifetime 77 wRC+, Descalso an 80, and neither will do enough to offset that with his glove. For a team with aspirations to contend again, that won’t do; the 1.5- to 2.0-game improvement Walker offers could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them.
They’re amid a fire sale, having parted ways with Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, Jake Odorizzi and Steven Souza Jr., so it’s not like Walker would be joining a contender, but with Joey Wendle and Daniel Robertson owning fewer than 400 plate appearances between them and projected for a combined 0.7 WAR, they could certainly improve their on-field product. The DH slot, where C.J. Cron, Brad Miller, and Denard Span are projected to combined for a sizzling 0.5 WAR, could use help as well.
Another rebuilding team that won’t be much fun this year, the Tigers are dreadful at second base, where the presence of Dixon Machado (-0.1 career WAR, projected for 0.6 in 2018) will remind everyone that he’s not related to Manny.
If MLB does levy a significant suspension on Miguel Sano in connection with his alleged assault of a photographer — an incident that the league has been investigating since late December — Walker could fit into a platoon with Eduardo Escobar, who hits lefties much better than righties. Though Sano recently spoke to MLB investigators, there’s no timetable for when the league will make a ruling.
Barring a sudden change elsewhere — somebody’s regular second or third baseman breaks a hamate or tears an ACL in the next few weeks — the options for Walker don’t look great unless Milwaukee or Arizona suddenly become motivated to spend money (which they probably should, given their playoff aspirations). Most likely, Walker will have to settle for a one-year deal with a base salary and incentive bonuses, and he might have to weigh the possibility of a full-time job with a bad ballclub that will allow him to show he’s still worthy of a larger investment against the chance to play a part-time role for a contender. If there’s any comfort to be taken from his situation, it’s in the fact that he’s hardly the only player in such a bind at this point.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.