After last offseason when the Pirates pilfered two pitching prospects for the Orioles in exchange for the disappointing Travis Snider, just about the last thing you want to see is any news that the O's are talking another trade with that team. We are not so lucky to avoid those memories. A rumor crept into the Orioles beat writer sphere on Wednesday that the O's and Pirates have discussed a potential trade involving second baseman Neil Walker.
Before anything else, remember always the first rule of baseball rumors: Probably nothing will happen. That's true about nearly every rumor. This is no exception.
It's a curious one, though. What the heck do the Orioles want with a second baseman when they've already got Jonathan Schoop? What do they want with a player in his final year of arbitration eligibility, set to make an estimated $10 million for 2016? They already have so many holes on the team with their starting rotation and corner outfield and potentially at first base as well.
At least the Snider acquisition, more or less complete failure that it was, made sense at the time as an attempt to address what turned out to be one of the biggest deficiencies about the 2015 team. Snider even had the potential to be an Oriole for two years. The 30-year-old switch-hitting Walker fills no obvious need and starts out known to be temporary.
The Baltimore Sun's Eduardo Encina on a potential role for Walker on the team:
...the Orioles see Walker as a possible fit at first base if the club can't bring back free agents Chris Davis and Steve Pearce. He could also help fill the club's corner-outfield spots, be an occasional designated hitter and fill in at second base for Schoop or at third base for Manny Machado.
Walker has a professional baseball career that spans all the way back to the year 2004, when he was the Pirates' first round pick. In all of those years, Walker has accumulated a total of 69.1 innings at first base and 103 innings in left field. The idea of him as an answer anywhere other than second base seems crazy to even contemplate. Sign a real outfielder already.
There's a tendency for fans of any particular team to reflexively respond to any trade proposal by thinking of the other team's players, "He's a bum! Why would we want him?" The guys you already know are your guys, and they must be better than the unknown because they're your guys, right? After all, Buck Showalter always says he likes our guys, so you should too.
One can't look at Walker's career and come away with that same reaction. If nothing else, Walker has been an above-average hitter for all six full seasons of his big league career. He's set to get that $10 million next year because he has a successful track record, one that stands in contrast to the ups and downs of Snider's career.
A team can do a lot worse than a player who's batted .272/.338/.431 over a big league career spanning over 3,000 plate appearances. The Orioles did a lot worse than that in several lineup spots last year. They'll probably do a lot worse than that in several lineup spots next year, too.
Walker is, as Duquette might say, "a dependable major leaguer." He says those words so often about players who don't deserve it that they have no meaning, but in Walker's case he'd be right to say that.
Would Walker make the Orioles a better team? Sure, probably. No, you wouldn't feel as good with him manning first base compared to Chris Davis, but he is a more certain option than just chucking minor leaguers Christian Walker or Trey Mancini there. That is a big point in his favor when contemplating a trade. The risk of getting a bad outcome should be lower compared to that last Pirates trade.
For the Orioles, that's not the only question they must ask themselves. Is he the right fit for the team given whatever is the situation with their budget and the other needs they must address? Is he worth giving up more out of an already-depleted farm system when the Orioles could instead sign a free agent who only costs money rather than prospects? Those are less sure things. Giving up any prospect for a one year stopgap doesn't seem like the kind of thing the O's ought to be doing.
Don't worry - it probably won't happen anyway
A responsible GM should have a lot of irons in the fire. It never hurts to talk, and it's always good not to have all your eggs in one basket. Dipping back into the well of Orioles management cliches, a favorite saying of Showalter's is, "Never overlook an orchid when searching for a rose." Surely the rose is Davis, but it will be good to be prepared in case they don't get him back.
If Neil Walker is the Orioles' orchid, that would probably be a signifier of a disappointing offseason without any big, splashy moves. After all, if they began the offseason with $45 million available, a Walker addition at $10 million on top of Matt Wieters taking the qualifying offer at $16 million leaves the O's with $20 million to play with. That's not so much any more.
Is that so bad? It doesn't have to be. The O's two recent playoff-bound seasons all came after quiet offseasons full of unremarkable moves that mostly trusted in the O's ability to rely on an existing core of talent, supplemented with the occasional polished-up reclamation project. In 2015, the existing core of talent, particularly in the starting rotation, failed. So did the attempt to man the corner outfield on the cheap. The returning group of starters improving is as important to next year's O's as any signing or trade.
Even the most dogged Duquette critics must acknowledge that it isn't very likely that acquiring Walker is the Orioles' Plan A for first base or left field this offseason. So while this is one rumor that has leaked out at this point in time, it's probably not a prime focus. It's something the two teams can talk about, and if things shake out a certain way they can talk some more in a month or two.
For now, any discussion of Walker is a big head-scratcher, but the good news is probably nothing will happen so there's no reason to worry about it.