Neil Walker came to Milwaukee from the New York Mets in a move that can only be described as desperate.
David Stearns was presiding over a Brewers club that was exceeding all expectations and had a glaring hole at second base, where Jonathan Villar regressed badly after a breakout 2016 and the revelation Eric Sogard brought was dampened by a bum ankle from which he never fully recovered.
Stearns went out and nabbed Walker from the other New York club and filled the gap admirably. Walker, the switch-hitting veteran, slashed a respectable .267/.409/.433, popping 12 extra base hits of 32 total. While the numbers aren’t staggering, the on-base stat in particular is what the Brewers, who hoisted themselves on their own petard with virtually non-existent clutch hitting, needed. Walker acquitted himself well in the field, too, with one error in 188 innings at the 4. He helped to stop the bleeding and his veteran presence on an inexperienced roster gave a team, with zero April expectations for October beyond golf, the chance to play meaningful September baseball into the regular season’s closing weekend.
It is an oddity that Walker remained available all offseason, but there wasn’t much of a market for anyone, much less 30-something second basemen, even if they are switch-hitters with some poke. His remarkable career consistency says that he’s a perfectly adequate everyday big leaguer. What should stand out is that, in 2016, when his Mets were going nowhere, Walker virtually played to his career averages (.264/.339/.442 compared to .272/.338/.431 in Pittsburgh beforehand); when he came to Milwaukee with the chance to join a postseason push, he got better.
I fully expect Walker to do the same thing with the Yankees. It’s not like the nouveau Bombers need him to slug: there is ample power in the lineup. They don’t need him to stop any bleeding or fix anything that’s broken as he did in Milwaukee. Neil Walker can come in, go to work and take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s tantalizing power alleys. He is well-protected, provides a level of protection in kind, and isn’t a defensive liability. Moreover, his even-keeled demeanor and prior veteran and playoff experience plays well to a clubhouse just beginning to reacquire its bloodlust for October ball.
Walker takes nothing off the table, doesn’t impede the progress of anyone in the Yankee organization and might just be the one thing that makes a dangerous Yankee lineup an opposing manager’s migraine. Where there isn’t a threat to take a pitcher deep, there’s Neil Walker, who could do that, but also knows how to get on base: Walker’s .362 total OBP in 2017 was better than every everyday Yankee with a first name other than Aaron or mid-season acquisition Todd Frazier, now in residence in Flushing.
It’s not the splashy deal to which Brian Cashman or Yankees fans are accustomed, but it is exactly the kind of deal that makes good teams great and push contenders over the top. Neil Walker may not win any awards, and he won’t be the center of the pinstriped universe, but he could very well an integral part of another Yankees championship run.
Having seen the past in Milwaukee, it’s not a far-fetched future.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.