The Pittsburgh Pirates traded Freddy Sanchez to the San Francisco Giants at the 2009 trade deadline, leaving a big hole at second base with no internal options at the top two levels. To fill that hole, the Pirates traded for Akinori Iwamura, sending Jesse Chavez to the Tampa Bay Rays in November 2009 to land their starting second baseman.
Iwamura was coming off a .290/.355/.390 line in 231 at-bats during an injury shortened 2009 season. Iwamura suffered torn ACL, which caused him to miss a lot of time, and allowed for Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez to emerge in Tampa Bay. The Pirates hoped that Iwamura could fill the gap until someone like Chase d’Arnaud or Josh Harrison arrived in the majors. That didn’t work out, as Iwamura was a disaster, with a .182/.292/.267 line in 165 at-bats.
Fortunately the Pirates stumbled in to an option for second base. Neil Walker, who was seen as a future utility player coming in to the season, had a big turnaround at the AAA level. Walker’s results at the AAA level weren’t impressive prior to the 2010 season, with a .694 OPS in 2008, and a .791 OPS in 2009. Furthermore, prior to the 2010 season, Walker had only played catcher and third base, so he wasn’t widely considered a starting option at second.
Walker broke out early in AAA, hitting for a .321/.392/.560 line with six homers in 168 at-bats. After his hot start, and with Iwamura cooling down rapidly, the Pirates started playing Walker at second in Indianapolis more often, with Walker ending up playing 21 of his 43 games at second, including most of his games in May. Walker was called up to the Pirates at the end of May, and despite talk that Walker would be a utility player, he started 28 games in a row to begin his career. Walker started at third base in four of his first six starts, then was named the starting second baseman a week after being called up.
Walker never looked back, hitting for a .296/.349/.462 line, with 12 homers in 426 at-bats during his rookie season. Walker did see some ups and downs, like a low walk rate until the end of the season, and a drop in his power in September. He finished the season strong though, with an 18 game hitting streak from the end of August to the middle of September, followed shortly by hits in 12 of 16 games to end the season. The year was enough to lock down the second base position for Walker for the 2011 season, and maybe more.
Walker had a great season, recently being named to Baseball America’s 2010 All-Rookie Team. However, Walker doesn’t really get the credit he deserves for how good his numbers were. Out of the 27 second basemen with 400 or more plate appearances this year, Walker finished with the following rankings:
Not only was Walker the best rookie among the second base class, but he was one of the top offensive second basemen in the majors this season. The only players to beat him out in the OPS department were Robinson Cano, Dan Uggla, Kelly Johnson, Chase Utley, and Rickie Weeks.
The big question is whether Walker can maintain that success going forward. One of the big concerns with Walker has been his plate patience. Heading in to the 2010 season, Walker struggled drawing walks, with an OBP below .300 at the AAA level, partly due to a 5.6 BB%. He saw that number rise this year in AAA to a 10.1% ratio, and ended up with a 7.2% ratio in the majors, which was below the 8.5% average for second basemen.
Walker reverted to his old walk rate until the end of the season. His month by month rate was:
May/June: 5% in 120 PA
July: 6.1% in 99 PA
August: 5.9% in 118 PA
September/October: 11.4% in 132 PA
Walker was obviously seeing the ball well in September, with his 18 game hitting streak carrying over to the start of the month, followed by his run at the end of the season, and his walk rate doubling. Is that because Walker adjusted to the majors, or is it because the talent Walker was facing at the end of the season, with eliminations and September call-ups, was easier to hit against?
There’s no question that Walker has earned the second base position going forward. The question is whether he can repeat his offensive success from 2010. Without the walks, Walker relies mostly on his batting average. Walker has shown to be a good hitter so far, but is he a .300 hitter with an .810+ OPS? Or will he regress a bit, dropping down to a .270-.280 average, a .325 OBP, and a .450 SLG, putting him in the .775 OPS range?
Walker’s defense also wasn’t the best this year, although that is excusable since he’s played so few games at second in his career. He is athletic enough that he should be able to improve in that area with more experience and playing time at the position. Overall Walker had an impressive season, although he has two areas that need some work. It looks like the Pirates have a good starting second baseman on their hands right now, although if Walker can improve on his walks and defense he could eventually emerge as one of the best overall second basemen in the league.
The Pirates have some promising middle infield prospects coming up through the system, such as Chase d’Arnaud, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Brock Holt, although the future looks to be owned by Walker at second base. There has been an idea floating around the blogs and message boards for the 2011 season to move Walker to third base, move Pedro Alvarez to first base, and find a replacement for second base. I’m not a big fan of this, as it’s very short sighted.
First of all, there’s a good chance that Anthony Rendon could be drafted by the Pirates next year, making it likely that Rendon would be the third baseman of the future. The Pirates don’t have any internal options to move Alvarez to first any time soon, so the earliest we could expect an option to arrive would be 2013, when I project Rendon to be in the majors. Moving Walker to third would only be for two seasons if that were the case, but that’s two seasons of lost development time at second.
The theory is that Walker is bad defensively at second, and Alvarez is bad defensively at third, and if you’re going to have both in your lineup you might as well put them at their best defensive positions (which would be third for Walker, and first for Alvarez). The problem with this is that the replacement second baseman is going to perform worse than an average first baseman would, even if the second baseman is above-average offensively. So you gain an advantage by moving Alvarez from third to first and Walker from second to third, but you end up negating that advantage by converting Walker from an above-average second baseman to an average third baseman, all while filling the final spot with a lesser hitter than what you’d get from either first or third base.
To make it simple, if you’ve got the choice of Walker playing second, Alvarez playing third, and Garrett Jones playing first, or Walker at third, Alvarez at first, and Chase d’Arnaud at second, what do you choose? Do you take d’Arnaud’s middle infield bat and the upgrades on defense, or do you take the increased offense by Jones, despite the decline in defense at the other two positions?
The reason I think this idea is short sighted is because it only focuses on Alvarez. Alvarez is poor defensively because of his build. He’s only going to get worse at third base, Walker, on the other hand, is athletic, and has limited time at second base. With more time, Walker can try to adjust and improve his defense at second. Pedro Alvarez’s defense at third may not be ideal, but it’s definitely not worth losing two years of defensive development from Walker at second base, not to mention the offensive downgrade you get going from Garrett Jones to a middle infield prospect like Chase d’Arnaud or Josh Harrison.
The Pirates have made the mistake of playing players out of position for years. Walker can play third base, but he’s much more valuable to the Pirates at second. The problem here is the defense of Alvarez, but shuffling the infield around to fix that problem seems to create additional problems. The Pirates would be better off leaving Walker at second and allowing him to develop, drafting Anthony Rendon, and waiting it out with Alvarez until Rendon could move him over to first base.