Looking through the site archives, I noticed two noteworthy items that happened on this date in the last two years:
-Two years ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to an extension with Nate McLouth. At the time, McLouth was coming off a 2008 season where he hit for a .276/.356/.497 line, with 26 homers and 23 stolen bases. He was one of three extensions signed that off-season, joining Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit.
As we know, McLouth was traded four months later, in a surprise move that brought back Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez. McLouth was hitting for a .256/.349/.470 line in 168 at-bats before the trade. Since the trade he has hit for a .229/.330/.379 line in 581 at-bats with the Braves, and was demoted to AAA for parts of the 2010 season.
The extensions signed that off-season haven’t turned out for the best. Maholm has failed to put up his 2008 numbers over the last two years, and is likely in his final year with the Pirates. Doumit has been a disaster both on offense and defense, and is $5.1 M of dead weight on the roster. McLouth would likely be viewed in the same manner if he was still around. He would have been owed $7.75 M over the next year, with a $6.5 M salary in 2011, and a $1.25 M buyout in 2012. The Pirates haven’t gotten much from Charlie Morton, but Jeff Locke could make the trade look like a steal, considering how McLouth has gone down in value since signing the deal two years ago.
-One year ago today, the Pirates started Spring Training. That wasn’t noteworthy, but what was noteworthy was the news that Neil Walker was learning new positions, and trying to turn himself in to a Super Utility player. At the time, Walker was coming off of a .264/.311/.480 line at the AAA level in 2009, and had a career .248/.291/.428 line in 925 at-bats at the AAA level over the previous three seasons. He was a third baseman, but with Pedro Alvarez set to take over third base in the majors, Walker was without a future position.
At the time it looked like Walker was washing out, and any adjustment to add positions to his defensive game also added value, as his upside looked to be a Super Utility player. Here were my thoughts on Walker at the time:
The best way Walker can do this is by improving on his hitting. Walker is a career .248/.291/.428 hitter in 925 at-bats at the AAA level over the last three seasons. Last year he hit for a .264/.311/.480 line at the AAA level, which doesn’t really add inspiration that he can hit as a starter in the majors.
At this point it’s hard to see Walker having a future with the Pirates outside of a super utility player. He can play third base, and it’s assumed that he can play other positions, such as all three outfield spots, due to his athleticism. If you add in the ability to serve as the emergency catcher, his value takes a big boost as a utility player.
Even if Walker improves his hitting, Pedro Alvarez is the future third baseman in Pittsburgh. Assuming Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata take over at first base and right field, respectively, there won’t be a need to move Alvarez away from third. Tony Sanchez is the future at the catching position, and Ryan Doumit will hold down the fort until then. That leaves very few options for Walker, and that’s making the big assumption that he improves his hitting to the level of a starter.
Walker working on his defense almost seems like acceptance that he’s a future utility player. Keeping his catching skills sharp certainly does add value to Walker, which would accomplish his goal. Considering the makeup of the Pirates’ bench (not many spots available, and the one or two spots that are available will likely go to guys who are out of options), Walker doesn’t really have a chance to make the Pirates out of Spring Training. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if another team with a need for a utility player comes calling this season, wanting to take a chance on Walker.
The position change worked wonders. Walker did see a massive turnaround in his hitting, which I noted was a big assumption at this time last year. He also made the move to second base, which combined with a horrible performance from Akinori Iwamura, gave him the opportunity to start in the majors. Walker responded with a .296/.349/.462 line in 426 at-bats in his rookie campaign, which was good enough to get him listed as one of the top 10 second baseman in the league in 2010.
It’s funny how baseball works sometimes. Two years ago Nate McLouth was the future of the Pirates, and Neil Walker was a guy who had yet to prove himself at the AAA level. Today, Walker is part of the future, and the McLouth trade looks like a potential bullet dodged by the Pirates. It makes you wonder where the surprises will come from this year. Who will be the player of the future that is no longer with the team a year or two from now? Who is the guy that we’re not talking about now, who will soon be mentioned as part of the future of the team?