Neil Walker: Will the Pittsburgh Kid soon leave the nest?


Every parent dreads the day their child blossoms into adulthood and flees the security of his childhood bedroom to explore the great wide open that lies beyond the last stop light on the edge of town. (OK, some parents open champagne bottles.) But eventually the tears evaporate and Junior’s mail is gradually rerouted and all the dusty old Little League trophies are boxed, and then unceremoniously tossed into a dark corner of the attic. Life will go on, as they say. Perhaps one sunny far down the pike Junior will return home. The boxes will be reopened for nostalgia’s sake, and the family will drink and laugh and remind themselves how the departure was all for the better. But until then, life will go on.

Pirates fans may want to start clearing space in the attic soon, however begrudgingly. The Pittsburgh Kid may flee the nest  – rather, be tossed out – as soon as the conclusion of the 2015 baseball season. But Pirates fans won’t be left to wallow in empty nest syndrome. In fact, the nest may be crowded.

Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s native son. Child of one-time major league pitcher Tom Walker – an acquaintance of Roberto Clemente – he grew up about 15 miles north of Three Rivers Stadium. He cheered on the Bucs as a youngster and tossed darts at Sid Bream‘s 1992 baseball card with a raging Yinzer Nation.

Walker graduated from Pine-Richland High School and was drafted by the Pirates as a catcher in the first round of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He debuted in the big leagues on Sept. 1, 2009. At the time, Walker bunked in his childhood bedroom and commuted down Rt. 8 to PNC Park for home games. He’s been a mainstay in the Pirates’ lineup since. What a story. But like all stories, the credits inevitably roll.

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The Pittsburgh Kid has been an expected boon for his hometown team. Neil Huntington originally had Walker pegged as a utility man – not a cornerstone middle-infielder as many Pirates’ fans rate him. True, Huntington’s evaluation was short-sighted. Offensively, Walker has been more-than-functional as a major leaguer. He possesses a lifetime slash line of .273/.340./.432, with 77 home runs and 347 RBI in 2,823 plate appearances, and a WAR of +15.

Last year he was especially proficient at the plate, posting a slash line of .271/.342/.467 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI in 512 plate appearances and a WAR of 3.6. Furthermore, he boasts the third-highest OPS for qualifying second basement in 2014 at .804. These are commendable stats indeed for his defensive-minded position. At 29 years old, one figures Walker has a handful of prime offensive years remaining.

Defensively, Walker is no dynamo. His range is suspect. In 2014 he owed a dWar of -0.0. In fact, Walker has only a positive dWAR in two years: .1 in 2011 and 1.2 in 2013. Sure, many baseball pundits – think grizzled curmudgeon with clipboard in hand and stogie clenched in teeth – admit that Walker passes the good ol’ eye test. Sure, Walker has made some sparkling plays. But the eye test can be deceiving.

For example: Player A lays out for a ground ball in the hole, snares it, and his throw beats the runner by a half-set. Player B remains upright and scoops the ball off the dirt then tosses it to first base, beating the runner by more than a step. Player A owns the highlight reel — flashing leather that makes the eyes pop from the sockets — but Player B makes the same play more routinely, without the dazzle. The numbers suggest that Walker is more often Player A.

The chances Walker departs during the 2015 campaign are razor thin. He remains under team control until after the 2016 season. With the Pirates launching headlong into the turbulent seas of the NL Central with heavier artillery than at any point since the early 90s and a taste of two postseasons past, Walker needs to be aboard in 2015 to aid in the quest for maritime domination.

This offseason – as in past offseasons – there’s been whispers of “preliminary discussions” about an extension, but only whispers. Concerning arbitration: In an excellent piece by Rum Bunter’s own Chris Hodgen, Walker’s reps submitted a figure of $9 million while the Pirates countered with $8 mil. MLBTR projects that Walker will be granted $8.6 million in arbitration, giving the player a slight edge.

Walker only stands to become costlier next offseason via arbitration. And theoretically, if the Pirates and Walker agree on a long-term contract at the conclusion of the 2015 season, it would likely surpass Andrew McCutchen’s in value. That won’t happen.

Other reasons abound for Walker’s likely post-2015 season departure. He is not durable. Only once in six seasons did Walker avoid the disabled list. Dependability figures largely into long-term offers of big-time bucks. The Pirates can’t whiff on a substantial investment, lest they drag hefty dead financial weight throughout the length of the contract. Worse, Walker’s most nagging injuries involve back issues. Typically, back problems persist and become more troublesome over time. This inconvenient truth is made more glaring when the diagnosis involves a second baseman — he who mans a position demanding range and reaction.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Kid is both a financial and health liability. Furthermore, two notable successors are oiling their mitts in preparation of overtaking the position.

Jeong-ho Kang (pronounced Jeong-ho(me) Run Machine) is officially a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His reported deal is for four years at $11 million, with a club option for 2015 at $5.5 million. Kang manned the shortstop position in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), but scouts don’t necessarily peg him as a shortstop at the major league level. His body type is a bit stockier than that of the typical shortstop, and some reports indicate Kang may be somewhat of a liability as a middle infielder.

Truth be told, little is known about how Kang would handle shortstop, or second base for that matter, in the biggest of the big time. But Huntington himself flaunts Kang’s “(in-game) flexibility,” without assigning him a position. MLBTR cites an international scouting director who finds “Kang fringy at shortstop, suggesting he’s better suited for second or third base.” Second base, you say? The tale of Kang is yet to be written, but the Hometown Hero could be unseated by a player whose hometown could not be further form Da ‘Burgh.

Management’s likely long-term solution at second base was in Altoona in 2014: Alen Hanson. Hanson is only 22 will soon step onto the welcome mat at the pearly entrance gate of the The Show. The switch-hitter has been assigned to second base this winter in the Dominican – a red flag for Walker’s steadfast fans. His slash line in ’14 was .280/.326/.442 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI. Scouts describe the touted middle infielder as being small and sinewy, but packing some power. He possesses plus range, speed, and athleticism, but his arm lacks strength and is more befitting a second baseman’s. FanSided’s site Grading On The Curve ranks Hensen as the seventh-best prospect in the Pirates’ system. Hanson has the sheen of a cornerstone second basemen.

For the reasons mentioned, Walker could be dealt in a trade at the end of the 2015 season. Management may fetch a decent return for Walker, and not watch him leave outright as a free agent after the 2016 season.

Yes, the 2015 season may be Neil Walker‘s last hurrah in the uniform of his boyhood heroes. If so, he’ll have acquired enough goodwill in this town that many Pirates’ fans will be hankering to drag management to the makeshift gallows on Federal Street. Instead, Pittsburghers should wish him well while minding the trophies in the attic. Whereas Junior may vanish down the railroad tracks, a large part of him will stay behind with the city, and team, that helped raise him.