By Rusty Westerholm
The Neil Walker signing is already paying dividends for Aaron Boone and the Yankees. Though he came to the team expecting compete for the second base job and bounce around the infield, he will now likely be the Opening Day first baseman and then for the foreseeable future.
With Greg Bird sidelined for six to eight weeks, Walker’s experience playing first base and his remarkable consistency at the plate make him the most obvious replacement. Since his rookie season for the Pirates in 2010, in which he played 110 games, Walker has never been worth less than 1.9 WAR in a season. He also has a career OPS+ of 113 that has never been lower than 106 in a full season and a career 114 wRC+. By any discernible measure, he has consistently been an above league average player for his career.
Sure, the Yankees should expect a bit of a drop off compared to the offensive output Bird is capable of, but Walker’s value also hinges on his versatility. Let’s say Bird comes back healthy and plays 100 good games this year. Walker would then become insurance for Tyler Wade at second and Brandon Drury at third.
Wade had a great spring and won the starting second base job even after Brian Cashman signed Walker. However, his defense and versatility is his greatest strength, which likely won’t help him keep the job from Gleyber Torres. Bird’s injury does a lot for Wade’s job security at second base, but he’ll have to hit consistently to keep the job long term.
Walker also plays third base, a position Drury is going to man at the start of the season. Like Wade, Drury is holding off a Baby Bomber in Miguel Andujar, who had an electric spring. Drury also plays multiple positions and could serve as a super utility player if he can’t hold down third.
At 25, Drury has shown some upside as a hitter through two seasons in the majors. In the spacious road parks of the NL West last year, he hit 13 home runs and posted a .447 SLG in 135 games for the Diamondbacks. He has 31 and 37 doubles the past two seasons, respectively. The Yankees want to see him turn more of those into home runs.
With Walker on the roster, the Yankees have a superb backup plan for a largely unproven infield. With Torres and Andujar still waiting in the wings, Wade getting his first real shot, Drury being a bit of an unknown and Bird back on the DL, Walker is the only known quantity out of the gate outside of Didi Gregorius.
What’s more is Walker fully expects to move around the infield depending on the team’s need from game to game. In late Feb., while looking for a major league contract, Walker said he was open to playing third and first base in addition to his primary job as a second baseman. He reiterated that sentiment speaking with Yankees beat writer Bryan Hoch after news of Bird’s injury broke.
“More than anything, you don’t like to hear that [about] Greg,” Walker said. “Whatever role I’m asked to be in is what I’m going to do.”
Make no mistake, the Yankees were extremely fortunate to get Walker at all, let alone for a base salary of $4 million for one year. According to Fangraphs’ calculations of yearly worth, Walker has been worth an average of $19.6 million per year for his career. This offseason has been a tough one on its free agent class. Legitimate stars like Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and J.D. Martinez watched the entire offseason go by before finalizing major league deals.
Joel Sherman reported in mid-March that the Yankees chose to trade for Drury rather than sign Walker. Then this bizarre free agent market practically gift wrapped Walker for Cashman; and Boone should be particularly thankful, given Cashman had previously brought in Jace Peterson and Danny Espinosa to compete for second and third base.