TAMPA, Fla. — General Manager Brian Cashman from time to time relays a sobering message to his players: His job is to find players better than they are.
If that message had begun to ring hollow in recent years, as the Yankees mortgaged the present for a brighter, not-too-distant future and an escape from luxury-tax jail, it may have some resonance on Monday, as the Yankees signed the free-agent second baseman Neil Walker. He agreed to a one-year, $4 million contract with incentives based on plate appearances that are worth up to $500,000.
So, whereas Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were given the chance to flourish or flop last season when expectations were modest, such an opportunity seems less likely for two promising prospects — Gleyber Torres and Tyler Wade.
Torres, the organization’s top prospect, is hitting just .130 this spring as he works to return from Tommy John surgery on his left, non-throwing elbow. Wade has hit better, at .292, and run the bases with verve, but his fielding at second base — a position he is still learning — has not always been smooth.
Behind those two, the Yankees had brought veterans Danny Espinosa and Jace Peterson to camp on minor-league contracts, but both are hitting below .170, along with utility infielder Ronald Torreyes. Espinosa was released after Walker’s signing.
Manager Aaron Boone did not want to delve deeply into what the acquisition of Walker could mean, since it was not yet official when he spoke Monday afternoon. But when asked if it was a sign that Torres and Wade were not quite ready, Boone said: “No. I think that’s reading into it a little too much.”
Still, in the 32-year-old Walker, the Yankees are clearly getting a proven commodity — they pursued him last season at the non-waiver trade deadline, they had repeated discussions with earlier this winter, and he posted a .801 on-base-plus slugging percentage with the Mets and Milwaukee Brewers around a stint on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.
Though Walker is a switch-hitter, he has been significantly more effective as a left-handed batter — during his career and last season. He posted a .842 O.P.S. batting left-handed last season (compared to .601 hitting right-handed) and all 13 homers came from the left side. He could also spell Brandon Drury, who has hit left-handers and right-handers at about the same rate, at third base and Greg Bird at first base.
“We had a really good player fall into our lap, essentially,” Boone said Monday night, after the Yankees’ 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Walker, who had been working out recently at a camp for unsigned free agents in nearby Bradenton, Fla., will work out with the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday, and could play in a game as early as Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, his hometown team that he came up with.
The signing of Walker — at such a discounted rate — is another sign of the depressed market for free agents this winter. He made $17 million last season after accepting a qualifying offer from the Mets.
Walker’s agent had spoken with the Yankees primarily about being their primary third baseman. But his hopes of landing in New York appeared to evaporate three weeks ago when the Yankees swung a deal for Drury, whose major-league minimum salary required a more modest financial commitment. The Yankees, who are striving to stay below the $197 million luxury tax threshold, now have about $15 million to spend on starting pitching or other reinforcements this season.
Walker was seeking a multiyear contract but until Saturday did not have an offer.
“You think about some of the guys that are still out there and some of the guys that kind of had to grind out the off-season, they’re all very similar stories,” said Walker, who wanted an opportunity play for a winning team. “I knew it was a matter of time. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when.”
It is fitting perhaps that Walker arrived in time to watch the Yankees exhibition game Monday night against the Minnesota Twins, who have also taken advantage of the shrinking market for veteran free-agent talent. The Twins have added designated hitter Logan Morrison ($6.5 million), starting pitcher Lance Lynn ($12 million) and relievers Fernando Rodney (4.5 million), Addison Reed ($8.25 million) and Zack Duke ($2.2 million).
The acquisition of Walker may have served as inspiration for several Yankees on Monday night. Tyler Austin, who was vying for a bench spot backing up Bird, hit his third homer of the exhibition season, and Wade added two hits, including a double off the right-field wall. Drury also turned in a slick play at third base and started a double play.
“I’m glad we got him,” Wade said. “If I just come in and play my game, I’ll be all right.”
Reggie Jackson, who is in camp as a guest instructor, fell while out for a walk on Monday morning and will undergo knee surgery on Tuesday, a team spokesman said. … To clear room on the 40-man roster for Neil Walker, the Yankees designated outfielder Jake Cave for assignment. Infielder Kyle Holder was reassigned to minor-league camp.
Published at Tue, 13 Mar 2018 02:22:28 +0000