The Neil Walker experiment needs to end. The New York Yankees got a great value signing in the switch-hitting infielder in March when they inked him to a one-year, $5m deal, but the clock has expired on waiting for Walker to break out of his season-long slump.
In something of a utility role, Walker has posted a meager line of .200/.280/.280 with two home runs and 14 RBI. He has just eight extra-base hits in 167 plate appearances and is 2 for his last 20. After batting .294 in May and finally appearing to get his power going following an April batting average of .159, Walker has taken a step back and is hitting a meager .118 in June.
Granted, the Yankees could keep Walker for the sake of his versatility and hope he breaks out of this latest slump, but that just doesn't make sense. GM Brian Cashman has to take advantage of the incredible depth he has at his disposal and cut his losses with Walker despite the Yankees being no worse for the wear with him on the active roster.
Versatility at a cost
To be perfectly frank, the only reason the Yankees are keeping Walker around right now is his ability to play multiple positions. He has played three positions this year: first base, second base, and third base, with 27 starts at first leading the way. While this was definitely a factor in the Yankees' decision to sign him in March, there was also a lot more uncertainty going on with the team in Spring Training. Rookie sensation Gleyber Torres hadn't yet earned a shot at the starting second baseman's job, and another versatile rookie in Tyler Wade was making a strong case himself.
In terms of how Walker fit into the mix, it really appeared he was competing with Tyler Austin for the backup first baseman's job so starter Greg Bird could sit against lefties. Everything changed when Bird underwent ankle surgery and missed the first two months of the season, so Walker basically made the Opening Day roster by default. Given his switch-hitting and ability to handle multiple positions, his slow start could have been written off as not signing a new contract until Spring Training had already begun.
Except that hasn't been the case, and not just in the batter's box. His declining skills in the field have also been exposed, unacceptable as the Yankees continue to embrace analytics. Walker's UZR at first base is -0.8 and his UZR/150 is an awful -5.7. His UZR and UZR/150 at second base, his natural position, are -0.2 and -2.5. Oddly enough, at third base, he has posted marks of 0.2 and just plain zero, the only positive fielding marks on the season.
Throw in that Walker is not in a position to be getting regular at-bats in the Yankees lineup, and it is not fair to just have him ride the pine and start whenever manager Aaron Boone sees fit. The Yankees need to look at the depth they have down at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre and just cut Walker despite owning MLB's best record.
Who takes over?
As hard as it may be to cut Walker, it may be even harder to determine who takes his spot on the active roster because the Yankees have three men who could literally step up to the plate and be more effective than the veteran switch-hitter. Locker room favorite Ronald Torreyes is the first name who comes to mind as, like Walker, he can play multiple positions and the love the fans and his teammates have for him knows no bounds. The only problem here is that though the man they call "Toe" is a phenomenal utility player, he has never once played first base on the MLB level. He'll be back on the big league roster eventually, but probably not until after the All-Star Break when the Yankees won't need to carry an extra pitcher.
The next obvious name is Austin, who is no stranger to playing first base against lefties. Granted, he's only batting .223 on the year and has hit just .152 since May 1, but he has eight homers and 23 RBI on the year. His bat's pop speaks for itself and when he's running hot, he can seem nearly unstoppable.
However, as fans saw in the days before and after Bird returned from the disabled list, Austin is indeed very streaky and with New York constantly having to fight off the equally talented Boston Red Sox, that could be a problem later on in the summer.
The forgotten teammate
That leaves one man who the Yankees made a point of trading for in the offseason, but has seen his Bronx tenure derailed by both injuries and the rise of Miguel Andujar. Brandon Drury posted a line of .217/.333/.391 with a home run and four RBI before hitting the disabled list with migraines and blurry vision, but Andujar has since locked down the starting third baseman's job. That left the 25-year-old Drury toiling away at Scranton, where he has performed at a high level despite the circumstances.
Across both Double and Triple-A this year, Drury has posted an excellent line of .331/.444/.491 with four homers and 25 RBI. He has only played first base once on the MLB level, having spent most of his time either in the outfield or at second base when not manning the hot corner, but perhaps this is a sign he should start taking some reps at the position. His migraine issues appear to be behind him and he's clearly swinging a hot bat, so why not designate Neil Walker for assignment and give him a shot? New York traded for him, so the team owes it to itself to give him another shot even in a platoon role.
This is all pure speculation at this point, especially because Cashman hasn't tipped his hand on Walker or any future roster decisions. Moreover, with the 50th win of the season fresh in the books, the Yankees aren't exactly in a position where they absolutely must make a move in this department now. Everything seems to be running on all cylinders, so Cashman can focus on the greater priority of adding another arm to the rotation.
But that doesn't take away from how much of a liability Walker has been this year, and he is basically an automatic out. His walk rate (BB%) is down to 9.1% from 12.3% last year, and his strikeout rate (K%) has gone up from 17.2% to 21.3%. His ISO is a paltry .082 and his BABIP is .252, so bad luck isn't the culprit either. At age 32, Walker's effectiveness has just up and gone away.
The Yankees are top contenders for the World Series this year and at some point, it's going to be all hands on deck. Walker has proven ineffective while Drury has torn it up in the minors, so it's time to designate the veteran switch-hitter for assignment not only so he may try and start fresh elsewhere, but also for the good of the team.