At this point, there’s little point in expounding upon what an odd offseason it’s been for Major League free agents. Relievers got paid handsomely, the devaluation of bat-first corner players is more apparent than ever, and nearly 20 percent of MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents remain unsigned on March 5. Readers can choose whichever of the myriad explanations that’ve been presented this winter they prefer — the new CBA makes losing too appealing, Scott Boras’ waiting game, younger front offices valuing players near-identically, players overvaluing themselves — but the fact remains that it’s jarring to see so many quality names on the market.
Chief among the surprising eye-opening reports that have surfaced regarding the remaining free agents, at least in my view, is Neil Walker is being offered minor league contracts.
As many predicted earlier this winter, there have been some significant bargains in recent weeks — Carlos Gomez at $4MM to the Rays, Eduardo Nunez to the Red Sox at $8MM total (over two years with a player option) and Logan Morrison to the Twins at $6.5MM (plus a vesting option) — but those players were all at least rewarded with big league contracts and millions in guaranteed dollars. The notion of Neil Walker having to settle for a minor league contract seems utterly baffling.
To be sure, he was hurt by a lack of teams seeking starting second basemen, but we’ve probably never seen a player with Walker’s track record have to take a non-guaranteed deal at just 32 years of age.
Let’s be clear — Walker isn’t a star. He’s an above-average hitter on a yearly basis that has been generally below average in the eyes of defensive metrics for the better part of the past eight seasons. His glove isn’t a killer at second, but it rarely adds to his value, at least from a purely statistical standpoint.
Walker has been remarkably consistent at the plate since establishing himself as a big league regular. Generally speaking, I don’t think citing career numbers is especially worthwhile when it comes to free agents; what a player did at age 24 isn’t really indicative of what he’s going to do in his 30s. But Walker’s level of consistency is fairly remarkable and is of some note.
He’s hit between 12 and 23 homers per season, walked between 7.3 percent and 9.1 percent in every year but 2017 (when he jumped to 12.3 percent), and he’s never struck out at even a 20 percent clip. By measure of OPS+ and wRC+, he’s been 14 to 15 percent better than the league-average hitter over those eight years, and he’s never had a single season come in anywhere worse than six percent above-average.
Clearly, I’m not the only one flabbergasted by the fact that Walker is seemingly struggling to find a big league offer; MLB.com’s Mike Petriello published a column on this exact same scenario earlier today. (Naturally, I was already well into this look at Walker’s perplexingly bleak market.) As Petriello points out, Walker is one of just six hitters in all of baseball from 2010-17 to post an OPS+ of 105 or better and 12-plus homers per season. The other five? Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre and Edwin Encarnacion. Not bad company.
Detractors may worry about his platoon splits, as Walker faceplanted against lefties to the tune of a .214/.313/.298 slash in 2017. That line, however, came in a sample of just 84 plate appearances. Walker batted .330/.391/.610 in 110 PAs against lefties a year prior, and he’s logged a below-average but passable .264/.325/.366 slash (91 wRC+) when facing southpaws in his career. Coupled with a 122 wRC+ against righties, whom he faces more often, Walker’s overall bat is plenty valuable.
Walker does come with some injury concerns, but his medical history isn’t as daunting as the six DL trips he’s experienced in the past eight years might suggest at first glance. His 2016 back surgery and a partially torn hamstring in 2017 combine with his age (32) to create some doubt, but earlier career DL stints were caused by an appendectomy, a lacerated finger that required stitches after being spiked and a two-week absence due to soreness in his right side. His back, the largest potential red flag, didn’t keep him out of action at all in 2017.
Injury risk and minor platoon issues notwithstanding, Walker is a 32-year-old old, consistently above-average offensive performer who hits from both sides of the plate and can pass at three different positions.
Weak Market at Second Base
Walker is hardly the only free agent to struggle to find a decent offer this winter, and in his case, the reasons are perhaps easier to see than most. There simply weren’t that many clubs in the market for an everyday second baseman heading into the offseason.
The Angels had a clear need but filled that void by trading for Ian Kinsler. Walker told Billy Witz of the New York Times last week that he had some talks with the Yankees, but they ultimately acquired Brandon Drury instead. The Marlins saw a void created when they dealt Dee Gordon to Seattle, but they took on the rest of Starlin Castro’s contract in the Giancarlo Stanton swap. The Red Sox filled their short-term hole created by Dustin Pedroia’s knee surgery with Eduardo Nunez. The Blue Jays didn’t have a clear starting gig and also turned to the trade market for depth (Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz).
There are a few remaining spots where Walker could step into the mix and function as an everyday second baseman, but more and more it seems like he’s a potential bargain add for a contender (or hopeful contender) who could still provide plenty of value by bouncing between second base, third base and first base. He doesn’t have loads of experience at the infield corners in recent years, but he played more than 3000 minor league innings at the hot corner and saw time at both places in the Majors last season. As a switch-hitter with some defensive flexibility and enough bat to potentially spend some time at DH, Walker seems like he’d provide quite a lot of value as a bench player that could still vie for 400+ plate appearances as he rotates around the diamond.
Potential Everyday Fits
There aren’t too many teams throughout the league where Walker is going to push out an incumbent option at second base, but a return to the Brewers certainly makes sense. Milwaukee was discouraged enough with the combination of Jonathan Villar, Eric Sogard and Hernan Perez in 2017 to go out and trade for Walker in August. He hit well there, and the team is now carrying that same trio atop its depth chart in a 2018 season where it hopes to contend. If 2016 Villar shows up, that’s a much better option than Walker. However, Villar’s strikeout problems are glaring, and he was never going to repeat 2016’s .373 BABIP.
The Tigers could simply push Dixon Machado into a utility role and give Walker everyday at-bats at second base with the hope of flipping him to a contender whose second baseman is injured this summer. He probably wouldn’t net a huge prospect return this summer given the lack of offseason demand, but Machado could get regular at-bats at shortstop later in the year once Jose Iglesias is (presumably) traded.
Turning to the D-backs, Chris Owings has never hit all that much in the Majors; his best season, by OPS+ and wRC+, came in 2014 when he was five to nine percent below average, depending on your preferred metric. Walker’s worst seasons at the plate have come when he’s “only” been about six percent better than average. Owings has also spent considerable time on the disabled list (more than Walker) in three of the past four seasons. The younger player could bounce around the diamond as a true super-utility player anyhow; even if he finally makes good on the pedigree he showed as a minor leaguer, a platoon of Walker and Jake Lamb at third base would help to mitigate Lamb’s struggles against lefties. The Snakes would need to cut ties with third catcher Chris Herrmann or fellow infielder Daniel Descalso to make the fit really work, but Walker would serve as an easily identifiable upgrade. Their payroll may be tight, but this team was coming up with scenarios to squeeze J.D. Martinez onto the books just two weeks ago.
The Rays, right now, are hoping for a Brad Miller rebound at second base or for Joey Wendle to seize the position, but Walker’s consistency should hold some level of appeal. If he can be had on a bargain one-year deal similar to their pact with Carlos Gomez, then either shifting Miller to a utility role or just paying him the 30 days’ termination pay to which he’d be entitled upon being released from his non-guaranteed arbitration deal would upgrade the team. Walker would give Tampa Bay some added protection if Matt Duffy’s ongoing injury troubles persist as well. The Rays don’t seem likely to spend much, though, and perhaps they don’t love the idea of a player with recent back and hamstring injuries roaming the turf at Tropicana Field for 81 games next season.
The Royals reportedly offered Walker a minor league deal, which he unsurprisingly rejected. But there’s a clear fit with Kansas City, as the Royals are already toying with the idea of moving Whit Merrifield to center field to create some space for Adalberto Mondesi. The Royals could use Walker at second base, as insurance for Cheslor Cuthbert at third and as a potential platoon bat with Lucas Duda at first. GM Dayton Moore, though, has repeatedly spoken about the importance of the “economic” component of any signing, and Kansas City’s minor league offer indicates they aren’t comfortable offering much.
Super Utility Fits
The Angels are currently projected to break camp with light-hitting Kaleb Cowart on the bench as a utility option and Luis Valbuena as at least a part-time first baseman along with Albert Pujols. Walker would be a significant upgrade over Cowart, and the fact that he can’t cover shortstop in the event of an Andrelton Simmons injury isn’t a big deal when the Halos could just slide Zack Cozart over to shortstop, thus opening third for Walker or Valbuena.
Walker reportedly “intrigues” the Orioles, and they’re in a similar spot to the Angels. There’s no clear utility infielder in Baltimore at the moment, and if an injury to Manny Machado occurs, the O’s can slide Tim Beckham from third to short and place Walker at the hot corner. Baltimore has been pining for a left-handed bat for much of the offseason, and as previously noted, Walker’s bat against righties is perennially productive.
The Phillies aren’t ready to give up on Maikel Franco just yet, but they don’t need to be in order to clear room for Walker. The Phils are set to carry Tommy Joseph on their bench despite his defensive limitations and his skill set’s redundancies with Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana on the roster. Walker could back up Franco, Cesar Hernandez and Santana around the infield, and if Franco’s struggles persist, he could potentially assume a larger role at third.
Atlanta added some depth at second and third base with today’s pickup of Ryan Schimpf, but Schimpf has options remaining or could be cut loose himself. The Braves feel that Austin Riley isn’t far from Major League readiness, but Walker could pair with Johan Camargo to help bridge the gap; Camargo did all of his damage against left-handed pitching last year and could pair nicely in a platoon role with Walker at third. Walker would also give them an insurance policy against either Ozzie Albies or Dansby Swanson struggling, as if either ultimately needed to be optioned to the minors, Walker could man second with either Albies or Swanson handling shortstop.
Earlier this offseason, when we were doing preliminary discussions for our Top 50 free agent rankings, Tim Dierkes, Jeff Todd, Jason Martinez and myself spent a bit of time discussing whether it made more sense to project three years or two years for Walker. My initial instinct was three, but we ultimately agreed on two years given Walker’s age, recent injuries and the general lack of teams expected to be looking for second basemen.
At this point, I’d be stunned to see Walker land a two-year contract even though nothing has really changed with regard to his skill set or the value he could bring to a club. The seeming lack of interest reminds me of the 2015-16 offseason, in which MLBTR projected a comparable two-year, $20MM deal for David Freese based on his track record as a fairly consistent, average player. We even had one top executive suggest to us that winter that Freese would land a deal in the three-year, $30MM range.
In the end, Freese’s market never really materialized, and he took a one-year deal with Pittsburgh worth $3MM. Walker’s track record and consistency top the consistency Freese carried into his own free agency, but it seems plausible that he could be facing a similarly modest commitment. If that’s the case, some team will be adding a bargain before Opening Day.