The story of baseball's offseason was and will continue to be the slow-moving free-agent market. Even now, with spring training underway and injuries stacking up, there are starting-caliber players on the outside looking in. Hence the Players Association taking the unusual steps of hosting a free-agent camp and arranging exhibition games, just so players can show they're in shape while partaking in a camp environment.
One player who was in the union's camp was Neil Walker, the 32-year-old second baseman who split last season between the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers. Walker's unemployment is surprising, given how many teams could seem to use an upgrade at the keystone. Yet on Sunday, the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo reported on one team who tried inking Walker -- and boy, the details are frustrating:
Neil Walker, 2B, free agent — The Royals were unsuccessful in trying to bring Walker aboard. His asking price was too high. The Royals were hoping to bring in Walker on a minor-league deal, with the chance to make the big club.
You could credit the Kansas City Royals for trying, and you should question what "too high" means with regards to Walker's asking price as it pertains to the rest of the note, but don't miss the point. It's concerning that the Royals value Walker to the extent that they think a minor-league deal is the appropriate offer -- and that they think his market is such that an offer would suffice.
Walker isn't some flash in the pan, nor is he coming off a bad season. He's posted an OPS+ above 100 in all eight of his big-league seasons, and he posted an on-base percentage over .400 after joining the pennant-chasing Brewers. Dock Walker for his defense and his age, but there's ample reason to believe he has been and will be around a league-average performer in 2018. Heck, over the last three seasons he's ranked 14th in WAR among second baseman -- he's ranked eighth over the last five. Enough about the past though, right? Fine, how about the future? PECOTA has Walker down for league-average offense and two wins in 2018. ZiPS expects roughly the same, as does Steamer, as does every projection system similar to the ones teams employ. Add it all up, and that's worth a guaranteed big-league contract -- or, at least, it should be.
From whom? The Arizona Diamondbacks could use Walker. The Brewers could, too. Heck, if the Tampa Bay Rays truly believe they're as good as they were projected to be before trading away Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza Jr., then how about replacing that Joey Wendle-Daniel Robertson platoon with Walker to improve their chances? The Atlanta Braves need a third baseman (and they used Brandon Phillips there last season, so don't discount Walker based on his limited experience at the hot corner), while the Detroit Tigers could use a second baseman (among other things).
Even the teams that have entrenched second basemen -- like the Oakland Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom have embarrassingly low payrolls -- should be able to find room on their bench for a quality hitter like Walker on a one-year deal. Would Walker accept a reserve role? Maybe not. But he shouldn't have to settle for one, either -- not based on his past or expected performance. Isn't it odd then that the Royals thought Walker -- who ought to be in demand -- might accept a minor-league deal?
Obviously Walker could be asking for much more money than he merits. But this isn't a case where the Royals offered him a two-year deal worth $20 million and he declined, seeking instead $30 million for the same term. This is a case where a legitimate big-league starting second baseman is being handed the same kind of contract teams give out to fringe and bubble players to fill out spring and minor-league rosters. Either the Royals (and the rest of baseball) are judging Walker much differently than his statistics suggest he should be judged, or there's something not right here -- be it collusion, be it too many teams not trying, whatever. Occam's razor suggests the second possibility is likelier, and that's a crying shame.