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I was flipping around the dial Friday night in between periods of the Penguins game and landed upon a broadcast of the WPIAL 6-A championship football game between Pine-Richland and Central Catholic, when I heard a familiar voice.
No, not Bob Pompeani.
I’m talking about Neil Walker. The former Pirates second baseman, who starred in football and baseball at Pine-Richland before he was selected with the 11th overall pick by his hometown team in the 2004 draft, was doing some color commentating in the booth. Walker, who at 34 is no longer a kid, noted that he was coming up on his 10-year anniversary as a major leaguer, and also mentioned that he wouldn’t mind playing one more year in the big leagues.
So, should the Pirates take a flyer on the ol’ Pittsburgh Kid?
Walker spent parts of seven years with the Pirates, appearing in 17 games in 2009 before taking over as the regular second baseman the following year. He was part of a core of young players that included Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, all of whom combined to help turn the Pirates fortunes around earlier this decade.
During his time as a Pirate, Walker compiled a batting average of .272 and a .769 OPS, and failed to drive in more than 65 runs only once during his time as a regular in Pittsburgh. Although Walker was a No. 1 draft pick, I did not have extraordinarily high expectations of him when he joined the Pirates. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he seemed a bit bulky for second base, and coming through the Bucs’ minor league system, he never once reached the .800 OPS mark.
I’m not sure what the advanced analytics would tell you about Walker’s time in Pittsburgh, but I always considered him an average player, or just slightly above that. His range certainly was limited, but I never considered him a major liability in the field. And while his offensive numbers were not eye-popping, he seemed to deliver more than his fair share of clutch hits.
In short, he struck me as a positive piece on a winning team, but not one I would seek to acquire if my team figured to scuffle.
Walker’s final year in Pittsburgh was 2015, when he hit .269 with an OPS of .756 – a drop of more than 50 points from the previous year, when he batted .271, hit 23 home runs and drove in 76. That December, the Pirates – wary of his salary and his history of back problems – peddled him to the New York Mets in exchange for left-hander Jon Niese in what became a lightning rod of a deal. It was one of several moves that offseason that raised the ire of Pirates fans, who screamed that the front office went back on its word to add to the club – rather than subtract – when it finally got competitive.
Walker hit .282 with 23 home runs – but just 55 RBIs – with the Mets in 2016 and then hit the jackpot by accepting a $17.2 million contract from New York for 2017. He only lasted until mid-August that year with the Mets, who shipped him to Milwaukee. Overall that year he put together an .801 OPS, driving in 49 runs in 385 at-bats.
Walker returned to New York in 2018, but this time with the Yankees, where he scuffled to a .219 batting average after signing a $4 million free agent contract. For 2019, Walker headed south to Miami and saw action in 115 games, batting .261 with 8 home runs and 38 RBIs. He missed time with several injuries, including a jammed right index finger that kept him out of the lineup for two weeks and a pulled right quad, which landed him on the injured list for nearly a month.
So, does Walker have anything left in the tank, and would he add anything to a Pirates team that is either in major transition or an outright rebuild? Given that he was willing to play last year for $2 million, it’s not likely that Walker would demand – or command – much in the way of salary. He certainly doesn’t need the money; according to Baseball Reference he has earned nearly $52 million during the course of his career, and the website Spotrac has it at $54 million. I’m not sure he would provide anything more than one of the Pirates’ existing bench players would provide and in the case of guys like Pablo Reyes or Jose Osuna, it would be even less, given their ability to at least wear an outfielder’s glove.
Walker’s relationship with the Pirates had soured during his final season; the club had taken him to arbitration prior to the 2015 season and won. Walker told the Tribune-Review that the arbitration hearing “was probably the point when I lost all faith in the organization.” According to the Trib, the Pirates offered Walker a three-year, $27 deal, but Walker asked for $19 million over two years. Walker said the Pirates never countered, though, and that put the two sides in an arbitration hearing, with Walker seeking $9 million and the Pirates wanting to pay a million less.
The owner writing the Pirates’ checks certainly hasn’t changed, but all of the key front office players have moved on. So, would that open the door to Walker coming back in a far reduced role? When healthy, he’s still capable of providing a little pop off the bench. He would also be steady presence for some of the club’s younger players. And from a PR standpoint, the Pirates could do a lot worse. I’m not lobbying for it, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a spring training invite to see if there’s any kind of a fit, particularly given the new 26-man rosters for 2020.