When the Mets traded for Neil Walker after the 2015 season, it seemed almost too good to be true. They only have to give up Jon Niese, who at his best had been a roughly-league-average pitcher, to get him, and the Mets had seemed pretty intent on letting Daniel Murphy walk in free agency. And at the time, they still had Dilson Herrera in the minors to presumably take over for Walker if there was a vacancy at second base going into the 2017 season.
Baseball being the way it is, not everything played out exactly as expected in 2016. Murphy had by far the best offensive year of his career and was among baseball’s best hitters, and Herrera was sent to the Reds in the head-scratching Jay Bruce trade. Walker had a very good year for the Mets, though, until he ultimately succumbed to season-ending back surgery.
A 30-year-old for almost the entire season, Walker had spent his entire life as either a fan or a member of the Pirates, the organization that drafted and developed him. Since becoming a major league regular in 2010, he had hit above league average in each season of his career, sometimes by a fairly wide margin. His best overall season had come in 2014, when he hit .271/.342/.467 with 23 home runs, a 130 wRC+, and 3.6 fWAR. If there a flaw in the switch-hitter’s game, it was that he had always been a bit below average as a right-handed hitter.
In that regard, Walker gave the Mets more than they could have reasonably expected. When healthy, he hit .282/.347/.476 with 23 home runs—in just 458 plate appearances—with a 122 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR, a new career best. And he turned in that overall production because he excelled as a right-handed hitter with an outstanding .330/.391/.610 line and a 168 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. Eight of his home runs came as a right-handed hitter, more than doubling his career total of six as a right-handed hitter before the 2016 season.
Whether or not Walker can maintain those gains as a right-handed hitter is an unknown going into next season and beyond. It’d also be foolish to assume he won’t experience any setbacks coming off back surgery. But the Mets did not hesitate to extend him a qualifying offer, which would be worth $17.2 million for 2017 if he were to accept it. That wouldn’t be shocking, as that sort of scenario could position him well for free agency next year if he proves to be healthy and productive. The Mets have indicated that they might also be willing to go beyond a one-year deal.
Whatever the case, the Mets still have backup plans on their roster in the event that Walker departs. The combination of the T.J. Rivera, Jose Reyes, Gavin Cecchini, perhaps Asdrubal Cabrera—if Amed Rosario forces his way up to the big leagues—and lefty-mashing Wilmer Flores might be able to cobble together a second base season that resembles what Walker could do. But if he’s healthy, Walker still seems like the most desirable Plan A at second base for a Mets team that should absolutely contend in 2017.