By Brad Kallet
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Last week, Neil Walker accepted the Mets’ $17.2 million qualifying offer, deciding to return to New York on a one-year deal instead of testing the open market in free agency.
This move didn’t get much publicity, but it shouldn’t be discounted as a formality, or just another immaterial transaction. This signing was an important and significant one, and it will substantially help the Mets moving forward.
Walker, in his first season in New York, hit .282 with 23 home runs and 55 RBIs in just 113 games, and posted a .347 on-base percentage while playing a very solid second base. The 31-year-old started the season red hot, cooled down dramatically and then caught fire in August before back surgery in September ended his season prematurely.
There was every chance that Walker was going to decline the qualifying offer, as most who receive them do, and seek a longer-term deal. Had he declined general manager Sandy Alderson’s offer, he unquestionably would have gotten more money and more years in the coming months, and it’s far from a certainty that those would have come from the Mets.
Walker’s season was a bit underappreciated, and I think that’s due in large part to the fact that Daniel Murphy, the man he replaced, had a monster campaign in Washington. Most Mets fans didn’t want to see Murphy go, especially after his miraculous October a little more than a year ago, and he made Alderson pay by putting up MVP-like numbers.
Even though some Mets fans will never get over Murphy’s departure — and a perceived stubbornness on Alderson’s part to not actively engage with him — the fact remains that Walker was arguably the second-most productive hitter on the team last season behind Yoenis Cespedes. (Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, in fairness, might have something to say about that.)
One of the best offensive second basemen in the game, Walker was awfully clutch before getting hurt. When it looked like the Mets were all but finished in August, he shouldered the load in Cespedes’ absence and hit some big home runs to keep New York alive. Without him carrying the club in those dark summer days, the Amazins probably would have dug themselves too deep of a hole and failed to make the postseason a second consecutive time.
Walker, well-liked in the clubhouse and a proven winner from his days in Pittsburgh, also provides value in that he’s a switch hitter who consistently reaches base from both sides of the plate. The Mets’ power threats are predominately left-handed — Lucas Duda, Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson combined to hit .171 against southpaws in 2016 — and Walker, though he has more pop from the left side (.266, 15 home runs), is an overall better hitter from the right side (.330, eight homers). When he’s in the middle of the lineup, it completely changes the complexion of the order.
Having this situation resolved early in the offseason also frees up Alderson to focus earlier on the rest of his winter checklist — most notably the re-signing of Cespedes, whom he’s made no secret about wanting to return. With Walker back and Bartolo Colon having signed with Atlanta, Cespedes remains the only major free agent the Mets are in danger of losing. This front office has ample time to strategize, maneuver, play the market and negotiate. Had Walker’s status dragged on, it might have debilitated the organization’s ability to accomplish its goals and efficiently build out the roster.
With the middle infield shored up — Cabrera has another year on his contract — the Mets have the luxury of depth. You might remember that, almost inconceivably, T.J. Rivera — a relative unknown before his call-up on Aug. 10 — started at second base and hit fifth in the Mets’ loss to the Giants in the National League wild-card game. He now falls down the depth chart — though he absolutely deserves a shot to break camp with the club in spring training, as do Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores, assuming David Wright is healthy to start the season. Manager Terry Collins will have plenty of options at his disposal in 2017 and some high-powered insurance if and when Wright is forced to miss time again. (Even if he stays healthy, it’s hard to fathom him playing more than 130 games.)
Rivera impressed in his brief stint with the Mets, but he’s clearly not ready to be an everyday second baseman, nor is Matt Reynolds or Ty Kelly. And as impactful as Reyes was last season, I’d rather have him on the bench, spelling Wright when he needs a day off, occasionally getting spot starts and wreaking havoc late in games. Not to mention that his rightful place is on the left side of the infield, as is Flores’.
Walker is the best man for the job at second base, and the deal was an undisputed win for the Mets.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet