When the Milwaukee Brewers were struggling to get anything going offensively for the month-plus after the All-Star break, general manager David Stearns made a deal in August to bring in Neil Walker.
The former Brewer Killer ended up being the Brewers' saving grace. In 38 games, Walker hit .267/.409/.433, driving in 13 runs with 12 of his 32 hits going for extra bases. His OPS+ of 122 matched team MVP Travis Shaw's mark for the season, trailing only Eric Thames (126) and Domingo Santana (127).
Part of the reason why the Brewers were able to get Walker for next-to-nothing (aside from the Mets' desire to purge as much salary as possible) was his status as a pending free agent. After such a successful stint, it's a natural to wonder whether the Brewers should bring him back on a new contract -- perhaps even a multi-year deal.
In his end-of-year chat at JSOnline, Tom Haudricourt fielded a couple questions on Walker's future with the team:
One of the more interesting players seeking free agency on the roster this year is Neil Walker. Given his versatility, both in the field and at the plate being a switch hitter, do you expect the Brewers to actively attempt to resign him? I think it would be smart, considering the question mark at 2B with Villar and Sogard's second half production (plus, he may be gone as well).
by Logan 1:59 PM
I think the Brewers will wait to see what the market offers Walker to see if it makes any sense to try to keep him. And Walker told us he definitely wants to see what's out there because he has not been on the free-agent market yet during his career.
What free agents on the roster do you see the Brewers trying to retain?
by Mark 2:25 PM
Perhaps Swarzak, maybe Sogard. They will wait to see what Walker is offered before deciding what to do there. I don't think the Brewers will overpay to keep any of them but all of the above were good fits.
If you read between the lines a little bit, it looks like the Brewers would have some interest in retaining Walker's services, but the "wait to see what the market is" is treading towards "he's going to be too expensive to keep" territory.
Walker made $17.2 million in 2017 after accepting a qualifying offer from the Mets last offseason. A first-time free agent heading into his age 32 season, it's probably safe to assume he'd look for a multi-year deal with roughly the same annual average salary. While the Brewers might be able to make something like 2 years and $30-35 million work given their minimal payroll obligations, that kind of offer might not match the market rate, given the free agent contracts given out to similar players in recent years.
Like Walker, Justin Turner was subject to a qualifying offer last season from the Los Angeles Dodgers. After hitting .275/.339/.493 with a 121 OPS+ in his age 31 season in 2016, Turner ended up signing a 4-year, $64 million deal with the Dodgers. While $16 million a year is a lot of money to give to someone heading into their mid-30s, the early returns were good this year -- Turner hit .322/.415/.530 in 130 games, made his first All-Star team, and was a borderline MVP candidate.
Turner wasn't the only Swiss Army Knife player to land a big contract last winter. Ian Desmond signed a 5-year, $70 million deal with Colorado after hitting .285/.335/.446 with a 104 OPS+ in Texas as a 30-year-old in 2016. Desmond's value was driven up a little by his ability to fill in in the outfield on top of his infield versatility, and he did end up spending about 2/3 of his time in left field with the Rockies this year (66 games in left, 27 at first base, 1 in centerfield and 1 at shortstop). Unfortunately, the first year of that contract did not work out as well as Turner's, with Desmond hitting more like Hernan Perez, putting up a .274/.326/.375 line with a 73 OPS+ in 95 games.
If you thought big contracts for super-utility guys in their 30s was just a feature of last year's offseason, we can also look at the deal Ben Zobrist signed with the Cubs following the 2015 season. After hitting .276/.359/.450 with a 120 OPS+ in Oakland and Kansas City, Zobrist signed a 4-year, $56 million deal with the Cubs before 2016 that would cover his age-35 through -38 seasons. Zobrist ended up hitting .272/.386/.446 in 2016, making the All-Star team and eventually being named the World Series MVP. This past year was a rough one, though, seeing him hit just .232/.318/.375 with a 79 OPS+ in 128 games at age 36. He looked his age, and there's still $29 million left on his contract.
Whether or not you think Walker is worth about $15 million a year over 4 or 5 years, it looks like that's the market Haudricourt was talking about and the Brewers may be anticipating, based on recent history. Given that salaries increase over time, it might even be likely Walker sees more than that. For that reason, the Brewers might be looking at other options at second base this winter, or brace themselves to give Jonathan Villar another chance until Mauricio Dubon is ready to make his debut.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference