If there is one thing that has stood above all as the Pittsburgh Pirates have turned into winners, it is this: Neal Huntington has a plan.
No kidding, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has routes, secondary routes, tertiary routes — and then maybe two more — mapped out to the ballpark in case there’s a traffic jam and placed in a tiny pocket covertly sewn into the car of each player.
To call Huntington measured and calculated would be one of the biggest understatements on Earth. Here’s the thing: What he’s done and how he’s done it cannot be argued with. Huntington and his staff have, somehow, propelled the Pirates into a franchise that actually means something.
After an abysmal 20 seasons and just a few short years ago in 2010 when the team went 57-105, the Pirates have accumulated 182 wins the past two seasons and played games beyond the regular season both years.
By any measure, that’s success.
But a couple questions do need to be answered for a man who seemingly has a plan for everything …
What exactly is the plan for second base?
What’s the second base plan for the short term?
What’s the second base plan for the long term?
And, perhaps most pressing, where does Neil Walker truly fit into this franchise?
All are valid questions that thrust to the surface on the heels of Walker and the Pirates being unable to settle on any sort of long-term contract plans and the player going through the arbitration process.
An arbitration panel ruled in favor of the Pirates over the weekend, awarding Walker an $8 million salary for the upcoming season (what the club felt his value was) and not the $9 million Walker submitted as his perceived worth.
He made $5.75 million last season and, either way, was due for a raise — it was just a matter of how much. The 29-year-old Walker has one-year left on his contract beyond this season and, as it currently stands, sources close to the situation indicate there “haven’t been any serious talks” about an extension.
Walker led all National League second basemen with 23 home runs last season and hit .271 with 76 RBIs in 137 games as he missed some time with a back that has given him problems on occasion.
With the numbers he has posted, it cannot be his production that has scared the Pirates away from inking him to a long-term deal, but rather a feeling — one not shared by Walker’s camp — that he is a health risk.
As such, the Pirates went out in the offseason and signed Jung-Ho Kang, the 27-year-old Korean player who could, potentially, play second base. In addition, the Pirates have much-ballyhooed prospect Alen Hanson in their system, a 22-year-old dynamic infielder who was just recently shifted to second base. With Hanson, however, he has been suspended in the minors for mysterious reasons and also projects to be at least a year away from the majors.
All that said, the only real known quantity is Walker, who will enter his sixth full season with the club come Spring, has a career .273 batting average, has seemingly been a model employee and, undeniably, wants to play in Pittsburgh his whole career if he were to have things his way.
From this vantage, it is past time for the Pirates to go ahead and make Walker a fair, long-term offer that I’m fairly certain he would accept.
Does Neil Walker need to be the best second baseman in baseball to merit an extension here in Pittsburgh? Nope. He just needs to be better than what the Pirates have now or have coming down the pike.
For my money — and in this case the Pirates’ — Walker is clearly the best they have right now and if I were to bet, I’m betting he’s going to work out better than Kang or Hanson. He’s certainly better than Steve Lombardozzi and Sean Rodriguez — a couple of other infielders the club picked up in the offseason.
No matter the case, one would think Huntington has some sort of plan as it pertains to Walker. Because, remember, Huntington always has a plan for everything.
If that second base plan moving forward doesn’t include Walker — either in the short term (if he’s traded) or after his contract runs out next year — Huntington better be darn sure his plan, which no one seems to be real sure about right now, works out perfectly.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.