The market has been weird this offseason. Accusations of collusion and an MLBPA grievance filed against four teams have marred things a bit. Some of this is a bit overdone as it was a weak class of free agents and a class expected to receive record deals will follow in 2018-19. Further, players have been offered contracts, but often have declined in hopes of a better deal. In the end, though, there remain several free agents that are both productive and could come cheap.
I am shocked by one player in particular who remains unsigned. I’m shocked not only because he hasn’t been signed, but that there have been crickets connected to him. Teams nowadays apparently hate consistent production. Former long-time Pirate Neil Walker is just sort of sitting there and I don’t understand why. The Yankees were interested but passed in favor of acquiring former Braves farmhand Brandon Drury. The Orioles and Royals are also in on Walker, but neither appear willing to give him much in terms of a guaranteed contract. One team that hasn’t entered the discussion is the Braves – and why the hell not?
Because of Johan Camargo? I’m a fan of Camargo and believe he’s capable of putting up 2-win seasons, but let’s overstate what we know about Camargo. He’s a late bloomer and the potential to be more than we have seen thus far is certainly there. He’s also an impatient hitter who had a .275 wOBA against right-hand pitching last season in the majors. That jives with his minor league production, where he was better hitting southpaws than he was against righties. Let’s not ignore this and just hope he does better than he ever has before. Camargo has struggled throughout his career against right-handers and that could be a problem.
But there’s Rio Ruiz to bat against right-handers!
Who said that? I will find you. And I will show you data until your eyes bleed.
The Braves recently grabbed Ryan Schimpf and he’s a bit interesting as a platoon option to go with Camargo. Back in 2016, he did have a .377 wOBA against right-hand pitching over 225 plate appearances. That could work, but he’s such a project because of his wonky swing and strict adherence to the flyball revolution mantra. Can we really count on a return to the 2016 form?
Camargo hasn’t proven he can hit right-handers, Schimpf has questions whether he can hit anything other than majestic flyballs to the outfield, and Ruiz has questions whether he can hit anything. Like, at all.
Enter Neil Walker – a proven commodity and likely a dang cheap one at that. For seven seasons, Walker has posted between a 2.1 fWAR and a 3.7 fWAR. Both marks have come in the last two seasons, interestingly enough. He’s a career .272/.341/.437 hitter with a .338 wOBA and 115 wRC+. Oh, and he doesn’t turn 33 until September. He’s belted 14 or more home runs in six straight seasons. Like Camargo, he’s a switch-hitter, but he hits righties better traditionally (.349 wOBA career, .344 wOBA last three years).
Besides, Walker has already embraced a utility role by playing in 17 games at first base last year and five games over at third base. It was the first time since 2010 that he moved around the diamond. He won’t be Camargo’s equal at third base and the Braves would be wise to switch the two if the score is tight late in the game should Walker be playing. However, Walker’s range has always kept him from being elite at second base. With less range needed at third base, Walker should be passable. In theory.
But he’s a lot more expensive than Schimpf, I understand. But how much more expensive? The market is producing a number of relative bargains at this point. Carlos Gomez, who is still decent in center field, received $4 million after a 2.3 fWAR season. This guy was an MVP candidate just four years ago. Logan Morrison hit 38 home runs last year and he settled for $6.5M. Eduardo Nunez got a two-year deal with an average value of $4M. Walker, who is receiving minor league offers, could be had for pennies on the dollar.
How should he be used? Certainly, he can play some third base with Camargo. I’m not saying it should be a strict platoon, but something along the lines of Walker getting 70% or so of the playing time when the Braves face a right-hand starter. Over the last three seasons, they’ve faced an average of 124 right-handed starters. If Walker gets about 70% of the starts there, that’s nearly 90 starts. Of the 30% of the time he’s not starting against a right-hand starter at third base, maybe you move him to second base for another 15 or 20 starts. Some of those starts would be to rest Ozzie Albies while most would give Albies a chance to move over to short and rest Dansby Swanson against some tough right-hand pitchers. And certainly, getting Walker some time at DH in interleague play is also workable.
And hey, can Walker venture out to left field? Might as well find out.
Of course, injuries will mess up any sort of plans we put together, but it’s certainly possible to find Walker a minimum of 120 starts.
Let’s flip the script slightly. Why shouldn’t the Braves go after Walker? Well, it would make it harder to add talent later with Walker’s salary on the books. However, if anyone is telling you that Atlanta couldn’t afford to add Walker, they are merely lying. The opening day payroll is currently on pace to be $6M less than last year’s opening day payroll and nearly $20 million less than the payroll the Braves finished 2017 with. The money to add a reasonably-priced Walker is there.
Does Walker bring enough bang for your buck? Considering he’s been good for 2 WAR a season, getting him at roughly half the price that 1 WAR is valued at, the answer there seems pretty obvious. This assumes a $4M salary.
Adding Walker makes too much sense for the Braves. He’s not blocking anyone – Austin Riley could use another year in the minors in my opinion. He’s not taking away at-bats from proven sources of production – sorry, Charlie Culberson. And he makes the Braves better. But, what should a contract look like? How do the Braves convince Walker to come down to Atlanta?
My offer – one year at $4M with a team option for 2019 at $8M. The option could increase to a max of $12M should he receive enough playing time and avoid the disabled list. If the Braves decline the option, Walker is due a $1.5M buyout. At worst, Walker is paid $5.5M for 2018, which is certainly much less than he earned in 2017. On the other hand, it’s a better offer than those minor league deals he is receiving.
If he doesn’t sign, it’s because he’d rather play for a winner. That said, since the Royals and Orioles seem like the only other teams showing much interest, his best chance to win may come in Atlanta as surprising as that might sound. So, let’s make this happen, Alex Anthopoulos.