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Neil Walker is who the Yankees thought he was

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After a slow start, the veteran infielder is looking like he’ll justify his roster spot

New York Yankees v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The biggest casualty of a quiet 2018 offseason was the “middle class” of free agents. The top of the class, players like Yu Darvish and JD Martinez, got appropriate sized contracts, as did the legions of lower end, replacement level players who get minor league deals as filler. The guys in between, the productive, non-superstars were the ones who were really crushed by such a soft market.

Enter Neil Walker. The 32-year-old was coming off a successful eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and a short stint with both the Mets and Brewers. He owns a career 113 wRC+, can play three infield positions, and is a switch-hitter to boot. All that added up to what appeared to be a steal of a deal, as Walker signed a $4 million deal to hold down the fort until top prospects like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar arrived.

Both prospects arrived ahead of schedule, and Walker himself seemed to disappear. Torres and Andujar thrilled Yankee fans in their initial taste of MLB-level baseball while the veteran managed a 4 wRC+. That’s not a typo. He was 96% worse than an average MLB player. That’s not stumbling out of the gate — it’s having the gate stay locked while you run in place.

Baseball is a funny game, though, and the roles have been reversed. Andujar is struggling to make consistent contact while Walker has shown us the player he can be, roaring into May with a 181 wRC+ in the first half of the month. Sample size and all, of course, but just about everything Walker does is coming back in line with his career averages:

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you know that the two traits I push most in a hitter is power and patience. Heck, I just wrote about how Gleyber could fit that mold going forward, and for all the love and praise heaped on a player like Ronald Torreyes, I’ll take a lineup of nine Aaron Judges over nine Torreyeses any day of the week.

In Walker’s case, the patience is returning, especially over the last two weeks or so. It shouldn’t be long before he hits the ball with more authority. In May, the man is slugging .480 despite not having a home run this year. He also hit the game-winning single yesterday.

All this couldn’t come at a better time for the Yankees. Brandon Drury and Greg Bird are due back soon, and while Torres looks like he’ll stay at the major league lever, Andujar could clearly use some polish in Scranton. The upcoming flurry of transactions requires a dependable, versatile veteran player to shift between various positions. It looks like that will be Walker’s role in the near-term.

Bird is coming back first, and if we’re anticipating an Andujar option, it would leave the infield with a hole at third. Torres saw some time at the hot corner in the minors, though not nearly as much as he worked second and short. Walker played the bulk of his minor league career at third base and has spelled there in the majors. If the Yankees are trying to turn Torres into a better-hitting version of Javier Baez, with the flexibility to play any infield position, Walker becomes even more valuable. He can work both second and third effectively, solidifying the defense while Torres learns “on the go”.

The biggest takeaway from Walker’s resurgence is patience, but not the kind at the plate. Fans are near-universally irrational; it’s what they do. Still, it’s worth reminding everyone to take a deep breath when a player has a cold couple of weeks. Eventually, water finds it’s own level, and Walker has too. He is who we thought he was in the offseason. With the infield carousel the Yankees are planning in the short-term, he’s as valuable as ever.