Fans in love with the Yankees' youth movement may have felt a bit of a gut punch Monday when the team announced a one-year agreement worth $4 million, plus incentives, for 32-year-old infielder Neil Walker.
Walker may very well take over the second base role that has been up for grabs this spring, though Brian Cashman stated Monday night that the veteran would need to take hold of the role, and won't be simply handed it considering there is just over two weeks left before breaking camp.
At the outset of the spring, Yankees' top prospect Gleyber Torres seemingly had the upper hand on the spot, however, he has had a rough go after missing the second half of last season due to season-ending Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow. Tyler Wade has played quite well at second base and at the plate this spring, while Ronald Torreyes is truly a utility infielder posing as a potential regular.
The Yankees had already seemingly bypassed Miguel Andujar at third base earlier in the spring when they traded for Brandon Drury. Speculation of that circumstance surely increases with the Walker signing because it looks even less likely than before that the team would consider shifting Drury to third base to accommodate Andujar.
The writing on the wall indicates that the Yankees are content with providing - actually prefer - more time to Andujar, Torre, and maybe Wade with each having less than a full season's worth of reps at Triple-A. Further, Andujar and Wade are just 23 years old, while Torres is 21, so holding them back for later this season is not going to impede their progression.
Walker's bat is clearly an advantage for the Yankees as he is a proven switch hitter. Walker is best from the left side of the plate, where he may benefit from the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field.He owns a career slash line of .271/.341/.437, while generating above-average OPS+ marks in each of his eight full seasons in the big leagues.
Walker's line improves as a left-handed hitter (.801 OPS), which is of course the side he would receive most of his plate appearances.
Walker will fit nicely toward the bottom of the Yankees batting order. He possesses a good eye at the plate (8.7 percent walk rate, which is slightly above average), and does not strike out as much as some others will on the squad (17.4 percent career rate), which is less than league average. Having Walker at the bottom of the batting order should help to keep the lineup turning over rather than creating a black hole.
The 32-year-old is not the best fielder (a bit below average per defensive metrics), however, he will not destroy the infield dynamic. Second base is his where Walker is most experienced, though he can play either of the corner infield spots as well. That becomes important when thinking about the rest of the season.
For those upset with the Yankees signing of Walker because they believe it will deter the club from shifting to Wade or Torres at second base down the line, I would suggest they allow things to play out before passing judgement. Hopefully the Yankees have learned their lesson with underperformance from a veteran, and if that happens with Walker, the team should change course quickly to whoever the best option in the minors (or the bench) might be. It's hard to scoff at $4 million, however in today's landscape, that is "easy" for a team like the Yankees to walk away from.
As we mentioned earlier, the Yankees could still start the season with Wade or Torreyes (I'd go with Wade) at second base while Walker gets up to speed. There is a chance that Walker settles in as a utility infielder if Wade plays well enough to lay a firm grip on the position. It's been my belief all along that if Wade makes the club, it should be as a starter, not as a bench player just to keep him from becoming stagnant on the bench.
We should also note that Walker has averaged just 112 games played in the last two seasons, which could provide some starts for Wade as well, if Walker is indeed proclaimed the starter.
The Walker deal allows the Yankees to make a multitude of choices throughout the infield, and also frees up prospects if they desire making a trade for a starting pitcher midseason. Most importantly, Walker gives the Yankees a versatile veteran at a cost that does not block a young player the team might believe will outperform him later in the season.