Looking to round out the back of their rotation, the Mets inked Taijuan Walker to a two-year, $20 million contract. Much like with Kevin Pillar, there are some contract shenanigans to lower the CBT hit, with Walker having a player option for 2023 that could potentially turn the deal into a three-year, $25.5 million contract. Even on the high end, that’s not an exorbitant cost to add a league-average starter to lengthen the back of the rotation.
Walker’s prospect pedigree is quite impressive. Picked 43rd overall in the 2010 draft, he checked in at 9th on BP’s top 101 in 2013 and moved up a slot to 8th in 2014. Scouting reports lauded the velocity and arm-side run on his fastball, along with a strong cutter and developing curveball / changeup that both flashed plus. After cups of coffee in 2013 and 2014, he claimed a permanent rotation spot in 2015. For the next two seasons he was a mediocre starter, but he showed enough flashes of upside to dream on.
The Mariners grew impatient, however, and traded Walker along with Ketel Marte for Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger after the 2016 season. Walker had what seemed to be his best season to date in 2017 for the Diamondbacks, but then the injuries started. First, it was Tommy John in April of 2018. Then during rehab in 2019, he suffered a sprained shoulder capsule, the sort of vague shoulder injury that has sunk many careers. He made only one start in 2019 before being non-tendered, and his velocity was well below where he sat prior to missing nearly two full seasons.
With their former top prospect on the market, the Mariners pounced, inking Walker to a one-year, $2 million deal for 2020. Walker rewarded them with 27 innings of 4.00 ERA ball, and Seattle was able to flip him to the Blue Jays at the deadline. There, Walker posted a 1.37 ERA down the stretch. On the surface, that made him an appealing choice going into free agency; a former top prospect, recovering from injuries to finally make good on his upside.
The reality isn’t as rosy. Walker was only a league average pitcher in 2020 according to his 100 DRA-, his ERA a product of a fluky .243 BABIP and a slightly high 78.5% LOB%. In fact, by DRA-, he only has one season where he was better than league average, and that was all the way back in 2015 (96 DRA-). He’s adjusted to life without his high end velocity well, throwing more splitters and sliders than ever before, but speculating on upside based on Walker’s prospect scouting reports is unwise when 8+ years and two major injuries have turned him into a different pitcher.
A league average starter is a good addition to the rotation to be sure. Sending one of Joey Lucchesi or David Peterson to the minors along with Jordan Yamamoto, Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz, and Franklyn Kilome gives the Mets more pitching depth than any iteration of the team in recent memory. The price was also perfectly reasonable for this level of starter, particularly given the limited avenues to spend that money at this point of the offseason.
The real problem is that the Mets got to the point where Walker—a league average and injury prone starter—was the best option remaining. If the team was comfortable gambling on an injury prone option, why not pursue players who have demonstrated a higher ceiling, such as James Paxton, Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, or Anthony DeSclafani? If having league average stability was the goal, why not sign someone with a better health track record like Jose Quintana, who is probably better and signed for less money? Even without mentioning free agents that signed for significantly higher AAVs or overall money (Morton, Bauer, possibly Odorizzi), it seems like there were better options available.
Back-end starters are fungible in a similar way to relievers, albeit to a lesser extent. Because of that, judging this type of signing is heavily dependent on both the market context and your personal preferences in terms of risk/reward tradeoffs and player evaluation around the margins. Evaluating this move with those factors in mind casts it in a less favorable light, even though Walker is a fun player to root for who serves a valuable role as a 4th/5th starter. As such, the Walker signing earns a C+.