The ink didn't even dry on Andrew McCutchen's new contract before everyone turned their attention to who's next in line for the big money. As WTM has posted, Neil Walker is the candidate that seems to be first on everyone's list. Pat over at WHYGAVS also shared his thoughts on the matter.
Let's take a look at whether this makes sense. Between Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen the Pirates now have a financial commitment of $14 million in 2015, $17.5 million in 2016 and $20.5 million in 2017 if the team decides to exercise Tabata's option. That's for two players. Assuming Bob Nutting still owns the team and Richard Branson doesn't assume the Ron Burkle role as limited partner, that is likely to be a significant percentage of the Pirates' total payroll. If the payroll jumped to $80 million in 2017, about a 60 percent increase from where it is today, that would represent 25 percent of the total--for just two players.
2017 is so far off that it is almost silly to make any kind of assumptions about players and their development, but if we are talking about long-term contracts we have to at least sketch out a possible roadmap. Looking at the Pirates roster we see that in 2017 Pedro Alvarez will most likely have had six years of major league service and be eligible to be a free agent. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon should be in their arbitration years as should Starling Marte. Josh Bell should be 3-4 years into his major league career and also be on the cusp of arb eligibility. Certainly it is unlikely that each of these players develops exactly as the Pirates and their fans hope, but they all have high ceilings and all have the potential to command big money if they do.
Neil Walker is 26 years old. Last year he hit .273/.334/.408. He had an OPS+ of 105. Most would categorize him as average defensively. He will make about $450,000 this year. Walker is likely to be a super two candidate next year, his third year of service in the major leagues, which means he will have four years of arbitration eligibility rather than three.
As much as fans might hope, there is nothing in Neil Walker's track record to suggest that he is going to become a much different player than the player we see today. ZIPS projects him to be a .268/.325/.432 hitter this year with 16 homers and 89 RBI. Last year Garrett Jones went .243/.321/.433 with 16 homers and 58 RBI. This offseason there was discussion that Jones might be non-tendered. The Pirates kept Jones and went to arbitration over $250,000. The team won and Jones will make $2.25 million this year. Certainly, as a second baseman, Walker has much more positional value than Jones, but I think the comparison is useful nonetheless.
With this information we can guess that Neil Walker would probably make about $3 million next year if he went to arbitration. From there maybe he gets $4.5, $6 and $8 million. So including this year Walker should make about $20-25 million in his years leading to free agency. In a twitter conversation Pat suggested that a second baseman with power who collects RBI will be overvalued by the arbitration process. I think this is flawed thinking that I hear all the time: that arbitrators don't think like sabermetricans and only look at things like HRs, RBI, wins and saves. Over the last five years I haven't seen anything to prove that one way or the other. Comparable players and their salaries are the biggest determining factor and of course all sorts of statistics are presented by each side to influence the decision. If Walker's career path proceeds as expected, I think the numbers above are a reasonable guideline.
Why would it make any sense for the Pirates to guarantee this money today? Sure, Walker could explode and put up Chase Utley-like numbers the next few years. But in 2010, at age 31, Utley's OPS dropped from .905 to .832. Last year it dropped again to .769 with an OPS+ of 109. The Phillies paid Utley $15 million in 2010 and 2011 and owe him $15 million in each of the next two seasons as well. At 33, Utley certainly appears to be well into the decline phase of his career, and he is not worth anything close to $15 million.
In 2017 Neil Walker will turn 31 and will be eligible for free agency. Paying him $3-5 million per year for the next few years seems reasonable and certainly within the Pirates' limited resources. But with those limited resources the Pirates should never pay a player like Walker more than $5 million. They should move year-to-year with a player like him and cut ties when he becomes too expensive. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Walker isn't likely to become more agile and improve defensively as he ages. He most likely won't be a second baseman when he hits his thirties. Sure, he is a Pittsburgh guy, but when looking at long-term assets, paying Walker guaranteed money now for years that the Pirates already control makes no sense unless you can negotiate a Tabata-like contract, which was so much in the team's favor that Tabata's agent resigned rather than have his name associated with the deal. (The optionality associated with Tabata's contract is a HUGE asset for the Pirates that is generally under-appreciated.) With players like Alvarez, Cole, Taillon, Marte and Bell in the system, the Pirates need to be very smart about handing out guaranteed money.
Plain and simple, the Pirates should shelve contract talks with Walker. He is a useful player under the current salary structure, but probably won't be, at the price he may command, four years from now. And they certainly shouldn't look to buy out any of his free agency years at numbers when he will most-likely be in the decline phase. The team has plenty of time to develop a player who can put up league average numbers and will cost closer to $500,000 as opposed to $5-8 million. With the Pirates' resources, signing Neil Walker to a long-term deal at this point is a bad idea.
UPDATE: The next 3-4 years are likely to be the most productive of Walker's career. Because of the system currently in place the Pirates will get Walker's services relatively cheaply during that time, starting with a well-below-market cost of $450,000 this year. The Pirates shouldn't overpay for the later years of control or free agency years because they get him cheaply now. Any long-term deal is likely to do that.