September 21, 2020

Patience Pays Off As Yankees Solve 2B

This wasn’t a move that needed to be made. The 2018 Yankees didn’t need Neil Walker. Had the Yankees opened up the 2018 regular season with the roster they had yesterday, they would still be projected as a playoff team. This move doesn’t make them any more of a favorite. But, it is a move that is a clear signal that they intend to win. When a team makes a move to give a solid answer to one small question in their lineup, they are playing to win. The Yankees did that yesterday. But, they didn’t do it in typical Yankees’ fashion. This one wasn’t about largesse. It was about patience.

Brian Cashman played the waiting game because he could. He had the luxury of a power-laden lineup that would allow him to see if his rookies were ready right now. While Miguel Andujar has shown some power, Gleyber Torres is in definite need of some seasoning, especially considering that he is coming off of Tommy John Surgery. Both could use some more developmental time. Had Cashman decided to pass on the bringing in a second baseman, the Yankees would’ve survived with either one of the prospects in the lineup or someone like Tyler Wade or Ronald Torreyes.. Offensively, the lineup projected to lead the league in home runs and be among the leaders in run scored. Yet, a team whose rebuild suddenly kicked into overdrive a year earlier than expected wouldn’t leave a question if the price was right.

Cashman waited and, once again, took advantage of the soft market. This time, he brought in a veteran second baseman at an extremely team-friendly price. Neil Walker may be entering his age 32 season, but a one year deal worth $5 million is quite a bargain. It’s not only a bargain, but it is a figure that still allows for the Yankees to stay under the luxury tax threshold and pick up a proven, steady Major League second baseman.

Walker’s presence fills two needs. First, he is a stopgap. Once Gleyber Torres proves ready, Walker will be a role player or traded. In addition to second base, Walker can play both corner infield positions. If Torres does need a full season in the minors, there is no reason that would indicate anything but a solid season from the veteran Walker. Second, he adds some balance to a Yankees’ lineup that does lean to the right side when it comes to power. Walker, a switch hitter, is a far superior hitter from the left side. While it doesn’t matter who faces Judge, Stanton, or Sanchez, the bottom of the lineup now has another left-handed bat to compliment fellow lefties Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius.

Walker does come with some red flags. The biggest one is his durability, as he has appeared in just 113 and 111 games respectively in past two seasons. He is entering his age 32 season, an age where middle infielders tend to lose range. Adding to that worry is the fact that defensive metrics do not paint Walker as an above average defender. His defensive runs saved mark has not been positive since 2013 season, the only positive season of his nine-year career. And, although he is a switch hitter, Walker has really struggled against southpaws, as last season’s line against southpaws was .214/.313/.298. For his career, Walker has a line of .275/.345/.438 against right-handed pitchers and a .264/.325/.366 against left-handed pitching.

But, here’s the thing: none of that really matters. For the cost of a utility infielder, the Yankees have a starting second baseman who can be on the positive side of a platoon. Despite the red flags, it will not take much for Walker to fulfill the value of this contract. His salary would allow him to slot into a utility role and still be a bargain.

Since 2011, Walker has put an average season of .270/.341/.436 with 25 doubles and 17 home runs. Projected to hit out of the bottom of the Yankees order, that type of production is quite valuable. Essentially, the Yankees have replaced Starlin Castro with a switch-hitting, older version with a bit more of a consistent approach at the plate. Castro averaged .283/.317/.442 over the past two seasons as a Yankee. He posted a -8 and a -6 DRS over the past two seasons. Walker has averaged .275/.355/.458 over the past two seasons along with DRS marks of 0 and -5. With better on-base skills, more power, slightly better defense, and a presence from the left side of the plate, the Yankees have slightly upgraded second base from last year’s team.

The real value is Walker gives Aaron Boone options. Walker could platoon with Torreyes. Or, it allows Tyler Wade to be the super utility player he seems destined to become, rather than strictly a second baseman. Walker can play most infield positions. Walker and Drury play multiple positions, which gives Aaron Boone the ability to maximize matchups with the bottom of his order. He also gives lineup options. Walker has the on on-baseills to hit towards the top of the order, but those same skills are just as valuable in what figures to be a productive bottom of the order. A solid producer, at a fraction of the cost, makes this a no-lose move. Even if Walker regresses to the point of being a detriment or he finds his way to the disabled list for an extended period of time, the Yankees have depth with Wade, Torres, and Andujar, along with Drury and Torreyes.

But, other than injury, there really hasn’t been much of a sign of regression. Consistency is what has led Walker to quietly rank 9th among Major League second basemen according to WAR value, 6th in home runs, and 15th in on base percentage since 2014. Again, that’s not a star, but that is an above average offensive player who gives a playoff hopeful/favorite some certainty in terms of production.

A $5 million bet on consistency seems like a safe bet.