The Milwaukee Brewers figure to have a very good lineup with a pretty clear hole at second base.
Neil Walker is a pretty good second baseman without a job on March 6th.
It seems like a pretty logical match, so, what gives? Why haven’t the Brewers brought him back yet?
At the start of the offseason, it seemed like GM David Stearns was resigned to the fact that Walker would likely get a free agent offer the team wasn’t comfortable matching. The veteran made more than $17 million last season after accepting a qualifying offer, and while he was never going to match that annual salary this winter -- even before the free agent freeze -- something in the $10-12 million per year range didn’t seem crazy (in fact, recent history showed even $15 million a year was possible).
Walker is someone who has been roughly 2 WAR (by any measure of the metric) every year he’s been a full-time player. He’s never had a wRC+ lower than 106 or a wOBA lower than .324. He’s been the walking definition of a consistent, dependable, know-what-you’re-getting player for 8 years.
Jonathan Villar is, uh, not that kind of player. To some extent, you know what you’re getting with Eric Sogard, but it’s not great (career .285 wOBA, 78 wRC+), either.
As of now, it looks like the Brewers are hoping Villar can recapture the form he had in 2016, but the projection systems aren’t buying that -- mostly because Villar hasn’t given the computers much reason to think so, since he’s had exactly one good season. Fangraphs’ depth chart projections currently rank the Brewers’ second base group as the 4th-worst in baseball, ahead of only Cincinnati (the projections aren’t buying Scooter Gennett just yet), Detroit and Arizona.
It seems pretty clear that Walker would be an upgrade for the Brewers and patch their biggest non-starting rotation hole, but there are some limitations that could maybe, possibly, conceivably help explain why there hasn’t been much talk about a reunion -- but at this point, it’s admittedly guesswork.
For starters, it’s possible that Walker’s days as a full-time player are done, in terms of both health and effectiveness. In the past two years, he’s been limited to 113 and 111 games, respectively, due to injuries that have also taken a toll on his defense. A switch-hitter by trade, the days of him being allowed to hit right-handed are also probably close to over -- he hit just .214/.313/.298 against left-handed pitching last year, as opposed to .277/.372/.470 against righties. He’d be the heavy end of a platoon, but those are still the splits of a platoon player.
The Brewers are already facing a significant bench crunch, and adding a platoon player who’s largely limited to defensive positions that are already well-represented wouldn’t help. Walker could back up Travis Shaw at third, but there are already too many middle infielders and first basemen going for too few spots.
With the team planning to carry 8 relievers/13 pitchers, there’s only room for 3 non-catcher bench players. One of those spots will be Domingo Santana or Ryan Braun, depending on who you view as the 4th outfielder. Hernan Perez is also likely guaranteed a spot. That leaves you with one spot for Eric Sogard, Jesus Aguilar, Keon Broxton or Brett Phillips. Broxton and Phillips have options and can be sent down, while Sogard and Aguilar can’t. Adding Walker would likely mean losing both Sogard and Aguilar, instead of just one of them.
Normally cutting a player of Sogard’s quality wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the Brewers already committed $2.4 million to him when they quickly re-signed him to a one-year deal at the end of October. While that isn’t a huge amount of money, especially for a team rumored to still have the cash to add a starting pitcher if they find a deal to their liking, $2.4 million in potentially dead money isn’t nothing -- especially when you consider Stephen Vogt is also due more than $3 million and also may not make the team as the backup catcher (although Vogt could be cut loose before Opening Day and the Brewers would only be on the hook for a portion of that total).
Talking about this at BCB Headquarters yesterday, our esteemed leader Kyle pointed out that while we may not think those numbers add up to anything substantial, Stearns & Co. operate differently. They let Anthony Swarzak walk over a difference of $1.5 million per year, non-tendered Jared Hughes instead of paying him $2 million per year, and offered Jeremy Jeffress a “take it or get non-tendered” $1.75 million non-guaranteed deal with two team options. Whether it’s saving pennies for future arbitration raises or extensions, the Brewers still aren’t in the business of having dead money sit on the books.
Should that get in the way of offering Neil Walker a one-year deal to improve the team for the 2018 season? No, probably not. Even with the concerns about his effectiveness against left-handers or the bench crunch, in the end, you want to collect as many quality players as possible and figure out the playing time later.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs