The New York Yankees should not bring back Neil Walker even with the uncertainty regarding Didi Gregorius’ injury.
Neil Walker is an interesting player. The natural second baseman can play multiple positions and is an intriguing bat because of his switch-hitting. This is exactly why the New York Yankees signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract early in Spring Training 2018.
Walker provided mixed results, to say the least. He was hot when hot and not when not. His versatility in the infield proved to be a boon at times. More often than not, fans went from cursing his name to singing his praises in the blink of an eye.
Now, the Yankees have a hard decision to make.
Star shortstop Didi Gregorius just had Tommy John surgery and will probably be out until the All-Star Break. This leaves the Yankees with a big hole in the infield. Walker could fill that void with both his versatility and veteran experience.
Tempting as it may be to bring Walker back on a similar contract, that is not the right move. There is no room for him on the roster in 2019, and here’s why …
Streaky to a fault
The biggest issue of Neil Walker’s yearlong Yankees tenure was easily his streaky bat. He slugged 11 home runs with 46 RBI in 113 games, but he posted a meager line of .219/.306/.354. He hit .164 in March and April, but looked like he was hitting his stride upon batting .294 in May. But the return of Greg Bird from injury in June meant a dip in playing time, and Walker only hit .063 that month. The playing time came back in July, and Walker slugged his way to a .345 average.
The slumping ways returned as Walker hit just .214 in August and .186 in September, so the bad definitely outweighed the good in Walker’s case. His offensive WAR, per Fangraphs, was an abysmal -8.2.
And Fangraphs adds another layer to the story. For all of Neil Walker’s struggles in 2018, all of his major hitting metrics were on par with or near his career marks. There were really just two major changes. His strikeout rate jumped to 21.9 percent from 17.2 percent in 2017. On top of that, his hard contact rate jumped from 32.8 percent last year to 37.1 percent as a Yankee while his medium contact dipped from 49.5 percent to 44.9 percent.
Everything else, however, was par for the course. There were no major changes to his line drive, ground ball, or fly ball rates. He wasn’t swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone. Maybe he was just off at the plate from an abbreviated spring training and also working as a platoon player instead of a regular starter.
Not all bad
The hardest thing about the Yankees letting Neil Walker leave in free agency is on more than one occasion in 2018, he was clutch as can be. On May 12, he had a walk-off single against the Oakland A’s. In a rain-shortened win against the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 17, his three-run shot tied the game in the fourth inning. Shortly afterward, on Aug. 28, he hit a walk-off solo home run against the Chicago White Sox.
The biggest hit, however, came against the hated Boston Red Sox on Sept. 18. With New York trailing 1-0 in the seventh, Walker’s three-run shot put the Yankees ahead for good.
Thus, despite his notable struggles in 2018, maybe Neil Walker can succeed as the Yankees’ super-utility man in 2019. After all, anything is possible with a full Spring Training, right?
A better solution
Tempting as it may be to bring Neil Walker back to fill in while Didi Gregorius recovers, it’s not the right move. He’s 33 years old, has a history of injuries, and just isn’t worth it. His bat may still have some pop and he can play multiple positions, but he also hasn’t played in over 140 games since 2015. Even as a reserve, durability is a concern.
Rather, the Yankees should cover Gregorius’ absence another way. I even covered it after news of his injury first went public. The main move is shifting Gleyber Torres from second base to shortstop, which makes sense since it’s his natural position. That leaves a hole in the infield that needs to be filled in the interim.
Thus, rather than re-sign Walker and hope for the best with his bat, the Yankees should use in-house options. Tyler Wade’s speed and gap power handle second base against right-handed pitching and utility infielder Ronald Torreyes work against lefties. Both come cheaper than Walker, with Wade under two more years of team control and Torreyes just entering arbitration.
It’d be a risk on New York’s end, especially since neither man has extensive experience with regular playing time on the MLB level. Still, Walker is just too streaky and that isn’t going to help the Yankees beat the new American League champion, Red Sox.
Neil Walker still has what it takes to be an impact player on an MLB team. His switch-hitting gives him value as does his ability to play all around the infield, plus outfield in an emergency. There is a team out there that could use him in 2019.
Unfortunately, that team isn’t the New York Yankees.