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Neil Walker is an inexpensive solution to the Rays DH problem

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Brad Miller will be missed, but Walker fits the new Rays narrative

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, JT Morgan offered an analysis of free agent Neil Walker and found him to be similar to what the Rays are expecting to receive from Brad Miller:

At the end of the day, Walker’s profile is a rich man’s Brad Miller. Walker hits for more contact, and he’s also been more productive against left handed pitching, but not likely by enough to justify the cost.

I think JT is under-selling just how much of an upgrade Neil Walker represents.

Neil Walker makes the Rays better

Neil Walker is more than a competent hitter. He’s a major league regular with a long track record of success on offense, as MLBTR highlighted yesterday:

Walker is one of just six hitters in all of baseball from 2010-17 to post an OPS+ of 105 or better and 12-plus homers per season. The other five? Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre and Edwin Encarnacion. Not bad company.

The two alternatives to Neil Walker for starting second baseman are (on paper) prospect Joey Wendle and in-house candidates Brad Miller or Daniel Robertson.

Tampa Bay appears to be taking a defense first approach, though, which means the anticipated second baseman will be a platoon of Wendle (vRHP) and Robertson (vLHP). This arrangement also leaves room for other prospects like Willy Adames or Christian Arroyo to force their way onto the Rays roster as well.

So let’s take second base out of the equation, and just talk about Brad Miller.

Neither Walker or Miller have the love of defensive metrics, but between the two, Walker has fewer negative scores on the infield because he hasn’t been sent to the wolves of short stop. When we’re talking about the Rays, though, we’re talking about a back up for the infield, and here I believe Walker represents an upgrade.

The insurance policy needed is at third base, where Matt Duffy is seeking to play everyday baseball for the first time since 2016. What the Rays need in a backup is someone who could survive without a platoon obligation, and has the arm to play third. Miller’s throws do not offer confidence in that role, but Walker — who was once projected to play right field due to his arm strength — fits the bill.

And on offense, Walker fits the new priority the Rays have shown in trying to limit strikeouts. Let’s try to make the comparison fair to Miller and look at the two hitters using only a split against RHP:

2016-2017 vs RHP

Stat Neil Walker Brad Miller
Stat Neil Walker Brad Miller
PA 699 792
BB% 10.9 % 11.2 %
K% 18.3 % 25.4 %
BB/K 0.59 0.44
OBP 0.355 0.316
ISO 0.183 0.213
wRC+ 117 104
GB/FB 0.9 1.21
LD% 22.0 % 16.9 %

Miller is the last bastion of the 2016-2017 strikeout heavy sluggers. If the Rays truly want to move on from that sort of profile, Walker remains a marked improvement.

Walker can hold his own in an everyday role

When I say Walker does not need to be platooned, I mean it. MLBTR addressed this question in their Walker write up as well.

Detractors may worry about his platoon splits, as Walker faceplanted against lefties to the tune of a .214/.313/.298 slash in 2017. That line, however, came in a sample of just 84 plate appearances. Walker batted .330/.391/.610 in 110 PAs against lefties a year prior, and he’s logged a below-average but passable .264/.325/.366 slash (91 wRC+) when facing southpaws in his career. Coupled with a 122 wRC+ against righties, whom he faces more often, Walker’s overall bat is plenty valuable.

If the Rays are looking for Walker to be an everyday player, either at DH or in the infield, I would agree there is some concern with facing lefties, but using a wider lens, Walker has thankfully been exactly average against LHPs over the last three years (99 wRC+), and even better if you narrow that to the last two years (121 wRC+). That’s because Walker, a switch hitter, absolutely crushed lefties in 2016 over 110 PA.

Walker’s hitting against southpaws appears to be high variance, but some chance of being productive is better than an already known platoon need.

Conclusion

JT’s argument centered around the cost, and that’s spot on.

Neil Walker is a good enough player to justify a qualifying offer or something close to that, and yet he remains unsigned. The Rays need to take advantage of the market if they have any hope of contention, and Walker’s availability is an opportunity for the Rays to become better.

Let’s say that Neil Walker, faced with only a minor league offer thus far, would accept a $3 million salary for an everyday hitting opportunity in Tampa Bay. This would make Brad Miller (who is recovering from a broken toe) entirely redundant. The good news, though, is that the Rays can designate Miller for 1/6th of his salary ($750k).

If everything shook out at those costs, the Rays upgrade from Miller to Walker while saving enough to pay a rookie salary, getting a similar backup defender for the infield with a better (read: more consistent) offensive profile. Brad Miller has exactly one season with a wRC+ higher than 106. Neil Walker has seven. It’s a reductive argument, but an instructive one.

We do not know how much Walker is willing to sign for, but without many teams looking for more than a bench player, Tampa Bay may be his best opportunity for meaningful and consistent baseball. If Walker wants to compete, he should follow the path of Carlos Gomez and take a pay cut for the everyday reps in Tampa Bay.