Should The Pittsburgh Pirates Extend Neil Walker?

By Mark Hock

As Ryan Gaydos reported earlier the Pittsburgh Pirates have made a fantastic move to extend the contract of superstar outfielder Andrew McCutchen. He’s been one of the best center fielders in the game since he debuted in 2009, and for a team that has struggled as much as the Pirates it’s a positive sign to see them extend a key player. So it’s not a surprise that the Pirates are looking to extend another key player, Neil Walker. However, Walker isn’t nearly as accomplished as McCutchen, and the important question is should the Pirates extend Neil Walker?

Over the past two seasons Walker has hit 283/340/431 with 24 homers, 149 RBI, 11 steals (and 9 caught stealings) while accumulating 5 WAR. In 2011 Walker’s 322 wOBA ranks 12/32 among second baseman with at least 400 plate appearances. In other words, Walker has been a slightly above average hitting second baseman. He’s not known for his defence, but Walker’s bat is good enough to overcome his defensive liability.

It’s clear Walker is an asset to the Pirates, one who could help to lead them to the playoffs. So if he’s such a valuable player, why would the Pirates want to extend him?

Neil Walker simply wouldn’t make much during arbitration. In order to take advantage of arbitration, a player needs to stand out at something. The problem with Walker is that he doesn’t excel at any one skill – be it hitting for average or power, driving runs in or stealing bases. Walker is a terrible base stealer, as he gets caught nearly as often as he is successful. His career batting average of 280 is good, but it’s nothing special. Walker has 24 homers during his career, so it’s not like he can be considered a power hitting second baseman like a Robinson Cano or a Chase Utley.

Walker’s a productive player, but as someone who is simply good at everything he wouldn’t earn much money during arbitration. While it might be in the Pirates best interest to gain some cost certainty here, it’s not expected that Walker will improve significantly offensively. His minor league OPS was 763, virtually identical to his 761 in the majors. Walker will be 26 to start the season, so there’s not much upside here.

The Pirates control Walker’s rights through the 2016 season, so there is no real urgency to extend him. He’ll be a free agent at 31, and it doesn’t make much sense for the Pirates to extend him much beyond that considering most second basemen tend to decline as they reach their early 30’s. So if the Pirates won’t save much during Walker’s arbitration years by extending him, or gain any value by signing him through his free agent years, is there any reason to extend him like they did with McCutchen? I don’t think so, and I hope the Pirates come to the same conclusion or else they’ll potentially waste millions on an extension that simply doesn’t need to be given.

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