The Miami Marlins have signed free agent Neil Walker to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Neil Walker is a 10-year veteran of the major leagues, and the National League Silver Slugger Award winner at second base in 2014 when he slashed .271/.342/.467 with 23 homers and 76 RBI for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has also played with the New York Mets, the Milwaukee Brewers, and last season with the New York Yankees.
Walker’s first American League season, with the Yankees, resulted in him hitting nearly 50 points below his career average. His OPS+ of 79 was the lowest of his career, with his next lowest mark of 106 registered in 2015.
Is Walker’s reduced efficiency a product of his relatively advanced age (now 33-years-old) or exposure to the new circuit. The Miami Marlins are banking on the latter.
After trading incumbent first baseman Justin Bour to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitching prospect MacKenzie Mills near the trading deadline last season, the position has been a looming question mark. In addition to de-facto starter Peter O’Brien, the Miami Marlins also have Garrett Cooper, fellow former Pirate Pedro Alvarez, and Martin Prado expected to compete at the not-hot corner in Spring Training. In case anyone is keeping score here, four of those five have been part of the New York Yankees association at one time, and the other (Alvarez) is a New York City native. It really sorta underlines the New York connection, no?
Walker, a switch-hitter, affords the Marlins added modularity in the lineup and in the infield. A natural second baseman, Walker also saw time last season at third base, right field, and left field for New York.
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The question that we should be asking right now is will Walker offer a solution – or more questions. The warning signs are there – a .219/.309/.354 slashline, a defensive WAR of -0.4, and his first total WAR below replacement level since a 17-game look in 2009. We’ve all seen this before, in every sport and in every era – a decent (but not spectacular) player signs on for one more try with a new organization. A lot of the time, the player in question continues to lag behind their former career progression.
On the other hand, Walker’s career may experience a resurgence in South Florida. Maybe the wide open and admittedly rebuilding Miami Marlins are the perfect landing spot for a switch-hitting, utility infield veteran. Is it too much to expect Walker to hit .250 with 15 home runs? I don’t think so, if he’s given an everyday spot in the order. Walker’s locker-room influence is also a factor. Only Prado and starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen are older amongst Miami’s probable opening day roster.
To make room for Walker, the Miami Marlins designated Nick Wittgren for assignment. Wittgren led the Miami Marlins in 2018 with an ERA+ of 125. Not everyone is happy about that.
But really, we don’t know how this all will pan out. And that’s ok. Isn’t that why they play the games? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next? I expect that Walker will open the season, along with Miguel Rojas, as a wild card in the field and at the plate, and that’s just fine.
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