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Multi-year deal in future for 2B Walker, Pirates?

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates second baseman Neil Walker walks to the batting cage after talking to general manager Neal Huntington at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>  Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates second baseman Neil Walker walks to the batting cage after talking to general manager Neal Huntington at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Video promo for In the Cage with Neil Walker. 30 seconds in the batting cage with the Pittsburgh Kid, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, at spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Video promo for In the Cage with Neil Walker. 30 seconds in the batting cage with the Pittsburgh Kid, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, at spring training in Bradenton, Fla.

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Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 10:14 p.m.
 

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Two years ago, the Pirates approached center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker about long-term contracts. There was no great urgency, as both players were still under team control for multiple years, but the Pirates wanted to send a message to their fans and the rest of the industry by locking up two of their cornerstone players.

McCutchen's camp rejected two offers before the negotiations finally gained traction after the 2011 season. Early last March, the sides agreed on a six-year, $51.5 million contract. It's the second-largest deal in Pirates history (behind Jason Kendall's six-year, $60 million deal in 2000), buying out all three of McCutchen's salary arbitration years and at least his first two years of free agency.

When early talks with Walker's camp also stalled in 2011, the Pirates stopped pursuing a long-term deal with him. Two weeks before spring training opened, Walker avoided arbitration by signing a $3.3 million contract for 2013. It could be just a matter of when, not if, talks about a multi-year deal are reopened.

“From day one, we said that one of the pillars of the approach of putting a championship team together is to retain players who are part of our core for as long as possible,” president Frank Coonelly said. “We continue to evaluate, on an individual basis, players for long-term commitments. As we said last year when we signed Andrew, it's got to be the right player for the right reasons. I'm confident we'll have other players like that as we progress.”

When asked if Walker might fit that description, Coonelly replied, “Absolutely, that's a possibility.”

As a Super Two qualifier based on service time, Walker gained an extra year of arbitration eligibility. The next three years will be very lucrative if Walker stays steady on the field and healthy. When he finally reaches free agency after the 2016 season, Walker will be 31 years old — and, most likely, in perfect position to snag a hefty, multiyear deal.

“When appropriate, we should be looking for long-term agreements” for internal players, Pirates owner Bob Nutting said.

What do the Pirates consider to be the conditions for the right type of player for an extension?

“The best example is Andrew. He's an extremely talented player who culturally fits in the organization, who has embraced Pittsburgh and who is a wonderful person. He's a great teammate and member of the community. I'm not sure everybody can have that entire package.”

Walker is the Pirates' best candidate for an extension. The first step is for the two sides to decide when, or even if, such a deal would make sense for each of them.

Walker already has made up his mind. He recently told the Tribune-Review he'd welcome a contract that would allow him to play out his career in Pittsburgh.

“This is the city I want to be in,” Walker said in December at PirateFest. “I'm excited about my first year of arbitration, (but) I can't really speak too much more on that. I hope to be a Pirate for a long, long time.”

The Pirates may have several motivations to extend Walker ...

Performance: Over the past three seasons, Walker has a .770 OPS, eighth best among second basemen in that span. In four years (415 games) in the majors, he's batted .280 with a .763 on-base plus slugging percentage. He had no hands-on experience at second base until 2010, yet quickly become adept at the position.

Cost containment: The arbitration process can be tricky — and very costly. The Pirates found that out two years ago when Ross Ohlendorf got $2 million through arbitration after winning just one game the previous season.

Stability: Over the past 17 seasons, the Pirates have used 11 different second basemen on Opening Day. Remember Warren Morris? Bobby Hill? Aki Iwamura? Walker could become the first Pirate to man the position four or more years in a row since Carlos Garcia (1993-96).

The hometown factor: The “Pittsburgh Kid” is a fan favorite and one of the nicest guys in the game. That's got to count for something, right?

There also are reasons for management to hesitate on a long-term deal:

Injury risk: A sore back forced Walker to miss time last year during spring training and again in the final six weeks of the season. He ended the year on the disabled list due to a herniated disk. The injury will be an ongoing concern, due to all the bending and twisting necessary at his position.

Long-term role: Second base was Plan C for Walker, who was drafted as a catcher and in 2007 was converted to a third baseman. As his range and defensive skills diminish with age, he might have to either switch positions again or move into a utility role.

He's not going anywhere: At least not until after the 2016 season, so the Pirates have plenty of time to come up with another option at second base. Or, the club could wait to offer a long-term deal until Walker is another year or two closer to free agency, gambling that his salary won't jump too much in the meantime.

If the Pirates extend Walker now, they'd want to buy out his remaining three arbitration years and at least one year of free agency. The template for a multiyear deal could be influenced by recent deals given to Rickie Weeks and Martin Prado.

Weeks, 30, is in the middle of a four-year, $38.5 million contract that includes an $11.5 million team option for 2015. In nine seasons, Weeks has batted .251 with a .779 OPS.

On Jan. 31, one week after going from Atlanta to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade, Prado, 29, agreed to a four-year, $40 million extension. The deal covers Prado's final year of arbitration and what would've been his first three years of free agency. Over the past seven years, Prado hit .295 with a .780 OPS.

Unlike Walker, he has played left field and all four infield spots.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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