Eerily similar to the team’s midseason woes, the New York Mets failed to acquire their primary target this offseason. As Ben Zobrist fell to the Cubs, the Mets were reminded of the summer deal that failed to bring Carlos Gomez to Flushing, but instead led to the acquisition and tremendous impact of star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Barely pausing to reflect on their loss, the Mets shipped Jon Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for switch-hitting second basemen Neil Walker. Walker is not necessarily the dynamic player that Zobrist is, but he could be as good as Zobrist at the plate in 2016.
It’s tough to ignore the positive aspects of having a player like Ben Zobrist on your roster. The 34-year-old veteran is not only a disciplined switch-hitter, but a "Swiss Army Knife" in the field, who transformed himself from a shortstop to super-utility player. The midseason acquisition from Oakland was instrumental in Kansas City’s World Series run and helped ensure that Zobrist would command a high salary this offseason. Zobrist brings a tremendous amount of talent to the Chicago Cubs' lineup, but at the price tag of $56 million, is the financial commitment going to outweigh the benefits down the road?
Between Walker’s seven-year career and Zobrist’s 10-year career, the two primary second basemen have very similar 162-game statistical averages. Walker has averaged .272/.338/.431 with 18 home runs per season, while Zobrist has averaged .265/.355/.431 with 17 home runs. Simple player comparisons can be misleading by nature, as there are way too many variables to consider to make all things equal. For example, while Neil Walker played his entire home schedule at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the 11th easiest ballpark in which to hit homers, Zobrist played his home games at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City and the O.co Coliseum in Oakland. Kansas City and Oakland were among the toughest parks for home run hitters, ranking 25th and 27th respectively in in 2015. Further, Zobrist has spent the majority of his career in Tampa Bay, where Tropicana Field ranked 20th on this list.
Fortunately, there is a wide array of statistics that can help bring the true value of players to light. wRC+ is one of these statistics, which adjusts for park and league, accounts for differences between outcomes (like singles versus walks versus home runs), and reflects a player's value relative to the league average (e.g., a 110 wRC+ is 10% better than average; a 90 wRC+ is 10% worse than average). Over the course of his seven-year MLB career, Neil Walker has averaged a wRC+ of 104.2. Comparatively, Ben Zobrist has an average wRC+ of 103.6 across his 10-year MLB career. FanGraphs additionally projects these two players to be similar in 2016, with Walker projected to have a 112 wRC+ and Zobrist projected at 115.
Despite the fact that Zobrist is moving to Wrigley, the third easiest park to hit home runs in, and Walker is moving to Citi Field, the 17th easiest park to hit homers, both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference project Walker to produce better power numbers.
.258/.329/.427 with 17 HR
.263/.330/.436 with 18 HR
.273/.356/.424 with 14 HR
.268/.345/.413 with 11 HR
In recent memory, right field at Citi Field has been kind to left-handed hitters, as demonstrated by the successful power surges of Lucas Duda (28 home runs hit to right field at Citi Field in 2014-15) and Curtis Granderson (28 home runs hit to right field at Citi Field in 2014-15), so Walker's left-handed swing may likewise benefit from playing a half-season in Queens.
It’s not perfect, but there is a strong chance Neil Walker could not only be a better bargain than Ben Zobrist, but a better offensive player in 2016. Walker is in his final year of arbitration and will land somewhere around $11 million before entering free agency at the end of 2016. If Walker thrives, the Mets can always re-sign him, but his acquisition also affords second base prospect Dilson Herrera an extra year to develop and does not block him with a multi-year commitment to a player at the same position.
Realistically, you can probably expect around 20 homers and a batting average floating around the .270s from Walker in his age 30 season in 2016. Zobrist, at age 35, will probably get on base at a higher rate, but won’t generate the kind of power numbers that Neil Walker has the potential to. So at the end of the day who would you rather have? A 30-year-old second baseman in his prime with no long-term financial commitment, or the 35-year-old "Swiss Army Knife" with a $56 million price tag.
Zobrist is probably the better player, but Walker could be very similar in 2016 and given the Mets' intractable financial quagmire, the Walker deal—especially considering the somewhat offsetting payroll implications of trading Niese—is almost certainly a more attractive arrangement.