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Why The Pirates Should (But Won’t) Bring Back Neil Walker

Neil Walker won’t don black and gold in 2018, but he should.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It’s OK to be cautiously optimistic about the 2018 Pirates right now. That could obviously change depending on how this offseason goes, but at the moment, it looks like they could compete. Fangraphs’ win-loss model projects them to finish with a winning record, and ESPN has them as the 13th best club in their “way too early” 2018 power rankings. That’s not quite playoff worthy, but it puts them on the cusp.

The outfield should get better if they hang onto Andrew McCutchen and get a full season from Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. The rotation is growing nicely and should take another step forward in 2018. Even the bullpen has some young fireballers that should help out next year.

The area of this team that seems the most desperate for an upgrade is the infield. Last year, all of the Bucs’ infielders combined for an 87 wRC+. They were the second worst offensive infield in all of baseball. Their combined value came out to 6 fWAR, which was 27th in baseball. There were five infielders who were worth more than that by themselves (Jose Altuve, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant, Joey Votto and Jose Ramirez).

The first choice is obviously Jung-ho Kang. Every attempt to get him back in the country has been a swing and big ol’ miss so far, but they wouldn’t have put him in the Dominican Winter League if they thought he would never play again.

So let’s check in on how he is doing.

Wha-wha-wha-whaaaaaaaah.

Even if Kang can get back in the country, there is no way he will be ready for opening day. He would need a lengthy stay in AAA just to get the rust off. Even if he is in their plans for 2019, the Pirates need to come out of this offseason with a shiny, new infielder for 2018.

Let’s throw some names against the wall and see what sticks. The Tigers are going to try to trade Ian Kinsler this offseason, but he’s 35 and coming off a down year. The Athletics are apparently going to shop Ryon Healy, but the best case scenario for him is to be another Pedro Alvarez. Billy Beane said he will not trade Jed Lowrie. Even if Lowrie does get swapped, the price tag will be high and he’s only under control for one year.

MLB.com writer Jim Duquette has the Pirates winning the Zack Cozart sweepstakes. If his 2017 wasn’t a fluke, that would be a major upgrade over Jordy Mercer. If he reverts back to his career norms, he won’t be worth the money and the infield would still be looking for another bat. It’s the type of high risk, high reward signing that the Pirates usually stay clear of.

There’s Eduardo Nunez. Yawn. Howie Kendrick? Double yawn. Brandon Phillips? Triple yawn, and add a quadruple yawn for good measure. Sure, they could all be had for a two year deal, but they are all at best lateral moves for the current group. They need an upgrade.

The Pirates need someone with power. Someone who can play second and/or third. Someone who could platoon with David Freese while still being able to take over an everyday role if necessary.

They need Pittsburgh baseball’s prodigal son: Neil Walker.

Walker has done pretty well for himself since leaving the ‘Burgh. He’s missed roughly half a season since 2016 with back injuries, but he still was worth 3.7 WAR in 2016 and 2.1 last year. If he had been healthy last offseason, he would have scored a three or four year deal. He decided to take the safe money and accepted a $17.2 million qualifying offer from the Mets. It was a mini-gamble that will hurt him this winter.

With his injury history, he will likely being seeking a multi-year deal, even if it’s a lower AAV. MLBTR predicts that he will get a two year, $20 million deal this offseason. That is great news for the Pirates, who bungled their way to tens of millions of free money since Disney is buying BAMTech. Some of that HAS to go to the payroll, and a projected $10M to Walker sounds perfect.

Walker and Freese would be a killer platoon, with Josh Harrison bouncing between the two positions. Walker had an .854 OPS and a 127 wRC+ against righties. Freese had an .839 OPS and 125+ wRC+ against southpaws, and those numbers would probably improve since he wouldn’t be overworked anymore. Fangraphs’ Steamer projects Walker to hit 22 dingers next year, too. Twenty-two may not be a ton, but he, McCutchen, a growing Josh Bell and a healthy Polanco would be the most dangerous heart of the order since the 2012 team.

Sure, Walker has an injury history, but so does Harrison. If one goes down, there’s an overqualified replacement ready to pick up the slack. That injury bug is what is keeping him in the Pirates’ price range. Cross your fingers and hope a slight reduction in playing time will have a positive impact on health.

Bringing back Walker would also address the Pirates greatest problem in selling their product: likeability. Fan morale is worse now than it was when the Bucs were in the middle of their two decades of losing. They want to root for likeable personalities on a winning team. Walker comes with a cult following of yinzers. A cult following that can help boost plummeting TV ratings, right in time before they negotiate a new broadcasting contract next year. He would be the type of marketable name they need, right beside Cutch and Bell. It’s Pirates: Generations.

But this reunion won’t happen. Neal Huntington screwed up royally when he flipped the Pittsburgh Kid for Jon Niese, but their relationship was on thin ice before then. The Pirates offered him a laughably bad contract extension before 2015 (reportedly three years, $27 million, according to the Tribune-Review). He said no, and the Pirates stopped the talks. They went into arbitration, and the Pirates didn’t hold back any punches. By that point, Walker “lost all faith in the organization” (credit again to the Trib).

Let’s hope the two are on talking terms now that some time has passed, because Walker is the guy the Pirates need. He addresses their greatest weakness at the moment. The 2.5 projected fWAR Fangraphs’ Steamer has him pegged for in 2018 is the difference between the Pirates’ current projected standings and a wild card spot. He’ll bring fans back to the stadium and to AT&T Sportsnet at a time when the club really needs those eyeballs.

He can bring back faith to the organization.

About Alex Stumpf (63 Articles)
<p>Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.</p>
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40 Comments on Why The Pirates Should (But Won’t) Bring Back Neil Walker

  1. mark delsignore // November 9, 2017 at 8:21 AM // Reply

    Agree on getting Walker for this reason and this reason alone:
    If he can still put up the numbers from the right side as shown above and Freese continues to dominate from the left, then this is the type of situation that the Pirates can take advantage of , so to speak. Plus Walker would not have to play everyday which would help with the injury bug. ANd he is flexible between third and short as Alex noted.

    This would fix our third base problem as best as it can be fixed given the Pirates strategy and current situation.

    If Polanco stinks it up this year, Pirates might want to consider a similar platoon situation for Osuna and right field.

  2. mark delsignore // November 9, 2017 at 8:26 AM // Reply

    “It’s OK to be cautiously optimistic about the 2018 Pirates right now.”

    WAHT?

    (ahem…..)

    Sir, if I may…….”cautiously optimistic”?

    This team is, at best , break even right now — on a good day. They need to fix third base, get better relievers, hope that Polanco is not a complete bust/Marte of PEDS is impactful and pray that the rotation takes a step forward.

    Too many “if’s” and “buts” right now to even be imagining “optimism” even with the word “cautiously” preceding it.

    • While not overwhelmed with optimism I don’t view the situation as dire as you, Mark.

      The starting rotation looks to be a solid if not spectacular one. They also have a shut down closer so the goal will be to build the bridge for innings seven and eight. Kontos looks to be a viable option for the former.

      The offense needs to be better no doubt. It’s understandable that they feel better health will help there.

      Fangraphs projects the Pirates, as currently constructed, to be one of just six NL teams to have a winning record in 2018. They see the talent as do others.

      As for ifs and buts, that the nature of the offseason and virtually every team has them. Let’s see what they look like in March.

      • mark delsignore // November 9, 2017 at 11:44 AM // Reply

        I totally agree, Don, lets wait till march — 100%.

        But help me with something here — and beuaty is in the eye of the beholder but……

        The starting rotation is —— ahem —– spectacular?

        Dont mean to take you to task over this Don but——WOW!
        Spectacular?

        C’mon, man……..that’s a reach no matter what your definition of “spectacular” is — mine is very specific by the way.

        Your optimism is admirable, Don

      • Following a season in which everything that could possibly go wrong did, it is hard to believe that a season of everything going right for a team that needs everything to go right is coming down the pike.

        • I’m not sure everything has to go right, Bob. They do however need their better hitters in the lineup, namely Marte, Polanco and Kang or a reasonable facsimile.

  3. mark delsignore // November 9, 2017 at 8:28 AM // Reply

    “Even the bullpen has some young fireballers that should help out next year.”

    ???

    Sir,
    other than Riviero, names and badge numbers please.

    …..Sir

    • Mark do you actually watch the Pirates? You’re really questioning whether or not the Pirates have young fireballers who could possibly help. Please stop with your comical posts.

      • mark delsignore // November 10, 2017 at 9:00 AM // Reply

        I am not actually trying to be funny here although I can see how you think that as I do try to be funny on most posts — successful or otherwise.

        names and badge numbers please of said “fireballers”
        …..
        Sir

        • Kevin Creagh // November 10, 2017 at 9:11 AM // Reply

          All of Rivero, Neverauskas, Angel Sanchez, Edgar Santana, and Tyler Glasnow have fastballs that averaged over 95 mph last year.
          http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=rel&lg=all&qual=0&type=4&season=2017&month=0&season1=2017&ind=0&team=27&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

          • mark delsignore // November 11, 2017 at 7:34 AM //

            I gave props to Riveiro

            Santana and Sanchez?
            AAA guys?

            We’ve seen what Glasnow can do….and cant do like find the plate — at least as a starter. Pirates should move him into a relief role

            Neverauskas? Ok…you got me there….for now

          • I don’t wish to take sides in this little dust-up, but Kevin was accurate in reporting the existence of these fireballers in the Pirates organization. He wasn’t commenting on their proven major league abiliby, just observing that the Pirates aren’t lacking in power arms similar to Rivero.

            A power arm is obviously a huge asset for guys that you only expect to pitch an inning or an inning and a fraction in each outing. So guys who are 7th, 8th and 9th inning specialists are an asset if they can throw strikes and have at least one decent other pitch to keep hitters honest. It remains to be seen if T-Glass can be successful as a starter or be successfully converted into a high leverage late inning guy. His control issues make it somewhat doubtful.

            Neversaukaus clearly has the power arm and decent control. He was not used in high leverage situations last year in his first ever major league action. Only time will tell if he can pitch in those roles. No one ever heard of Justin Wilson or Jared Hughes until they were thrust into more high leverage roles and attained a degree of success.

            A nice veteran arm for the back end of the bullpen would be a nice pick-up, but in my mind, if they don’t score a bunch more runs there will be nothing for the bullpen to protect.

          • Mark, the article said young fireballers. You asked who they were. You then criticize that they were minor leaguers. You’re not making sense.

            Santana struck out 20 in 18 IP. That would seem to indicate he could help.

            Glasnow in the pen could certainly help. He wouldn’t need to worry about throwing different pitches.

            There are guys like Kingham and Holmes as well. They could both convert to the pen.

  4. Jim Duquette needs to lay off the crack pipe. Forget the fact the Pirates in no way will sign a 32/33 year old SS to a multi year, 8 figure deal for just a minute (even if does make sense), they have two can’t miss prospects in the heavily laden and very strong farm system (or so I’ve seen commented here by our own freelance MiLB expert).

    Cozart sweepstakes?! I darn near choked on my bran muffin when I read that.

    Mercer will be here next year and then one of the farmhands the next year (Tucker or Newman).

    • mark delsignore // November 9, 2017 at 9:16 AM // Reply

      …and 3rd base?

      What of 3rd base?

      Sir….

      • Mark, I’d imagine it will be a combo of Freese and Rodriguez or Kang.

        As I’ve stated several times, I expect the makeup of the Opening Day roster to be eerily similar to the one we saw late in 2017.

    • Don’t rule out Kramer as a potential SS. He has been playing SS in the Arizona Fall League. I haven’t seen him play there, but the reports are that he has been solid.

      • Hitting .208 with a .663 OPS along with a 30% K rate.

        I spoke with one NL scout who told me he looked overmatched. Just one opinion I suppose.

  5. Kevin Schafer // November 9, 2017 at 9:19 AM // Reply

    Damn I wish there was a LIKE button on here.

  6. michaelstivic // November 9, 2017 at 9:52 AM // Reply

    I asked on the last blog what it would cost to bring the Pittsburgh Kid back. After reviewing the free agent list yesterday I really don’t see who the Pirates will be able to bring in. My guess is it will be the double yawn (Kendrick) or the triple yawn (Phillips). There will be bidding wars for the bullpen arms and I don’t think any of the available starters are worth much.

  7. It is disturbing to think that some personal animosity would prevent the Pirates from signing Walker. I kind of doubt this would be the case as these are professionals and think Walker will sign with whoever offer the best deal.

    It is the cost that will keep the Pirates from signing Walker which is unfortunate as he seems to fit the teams’ biggest need of infield hitters.

  8. Two thoughts on Neil Walker:

    1. His career as a third baseman can only be described as horrid. I think any substantive innings there would be a negative. For that reason Walker would appear to be destined for a DH, first base or second base role for a club willing to accept the limited range at the latter spot.

    2. While reports of a poor relationship between Walker and the Pirates have been consistent, I also have read that his father maintains a good relationship with the organization. If true, how bad can it be with his son? I would think he’d welcome a return to Pittsburgh but I don’t see the Pirates allocating $10M or roughly 10% of payroll to what would appear to be a platoon player for them.

  9. I heard TPOP was thinking along these same lines on bringing back, “Somebody Did Ask Me…” by Patrick Connell.

    • I would welcome Patrick. I always enjoyed his bizarre predictions, his sports trivia quizzes and just outright zany posts. Never took him too seriously, but then I don’t take any of this blogging seriously. It’s fun, that’s all.

  10. I think most fans would welcome the Pittsburgh Kid back into the fold, but as you point out, there may be too much water under the bridge to accomplish it. Walker will have no shortage of suitors and I predict he will stay put in Milwaukee.

    I would rather see the Pirates pursue, via trade, a younger power hitter that can play second or third. One with some control. They will have to move a decent prospect or major league piece to accomplish it, but they have some pitching depth in the starting rotation that they can use, especially if what we are hearing about Mitch Keller’s performance in the AZ Fall League is true. Keller is out of options, so they either have to bring him to the Burgh or trade him.

    • How is Keller out of options?

      • I don’t believe he is “out of options”, but I believe he has a service time issue that does not allow him to be sent to the minors. This was posted by several guys over on the FOB blog. I have not independently confirmed it, I just assumed they were correct.

        • Keller has all of his options remaining. I don’t know who told you otherwise, but they could not have been more wrong.

    • Kevin Creagh // November 9, 2017 at 2:33 PM // Reply

      Keller is not out of options. He’s not on the 40-man roster yet, so he has all 3. If by chance you were thinking of Nick Kingham being out of options, the Pirates lobbied for and got a 4th option on him due to his TJ surgery.

      • As I just posted, I hadn’t verified that personally. And you may be right, I may be confusing him with Kingham. I’m old, I’m allowed to be confused. 🙂

  11. “Bringing back Walker would also address the Pirates greatest problem in selling their product: likability.”

    What?? What kind of a statement is that? Winning games is the Pirates biggest problem in selling their product!

    Are you suggesting that the fans will tune in to see Neil Walker, because he is likable, even if they are having another losing season?

    It will take far more than Neil walker’s likability to turn this sinking mess around.

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