The World Series is now set with a matchup of the Cubs and Indians, meaning a team that hasn’t won it all since at least 1948 will be champion. For a lot of people that will be the story of the 2016 MLB season. But one thing that perhaps shouldn’t be forgotten is how this was the year of elite second baseman.
There were seven guys who played primarily second base in 2016 who put up at least a 5.0 fWAR, the most people in the 21st Century. And that doesn’t include Jason Kipnis, who put up a 4.8 fWAR for the AL Champion Indians. Here’s our list:
It’s quite a change from last year, when only Kipnis, at exactly 5.0, reached this level.
The Mets had a question surrounding second base heading into the 2016 season. They offered arbitration to Murphy, who turned it down hoping for a long-term offer from the club, which never came. Their first preference was to sign Ben Zobrist, who five times in his career topped a 5.0 fWAR mark but who was going to play in 2016 at his age 35 season. The Mets were willing to go four years with Zobrist, which was quite a statement, given his advanced baseball age.
Zobrist rebounded nicely from an injury-influenced year in 2015, doubling his fWAR total to a 4.0 mark in 147 games with the Cubs. When the Mets missed out on Zobrist, they turned to Neil Walker, who they picked up from the Pirates for his last year before free agency. Walker had a great start to his season, then went through an extended period where he flirted with replacement level before finishing with another scorching hot stretch.
Walker finished with a 3.7 fWAR in just 113 games before having season-ending back surgery. His last game was on August 27, so if he was able to stay healthy and hot over the remainder of the year, he had a shot at being a 5.0 fWAR second baseman, too.
A lot of fans are engaging in revisionist history right now, claiming they were in favor of re-upping with Murphy. While it was far from a slam-dunk decision, the majority of people at the time were okay with moving on from Murphy. And given that Murphy put up a fantastic offensive season, it’s surprising how well second base worked out for the Mets. Especially when you recall how they missed out on their first choice to replace him.
Now the Mets have to decide how to proceed with Walker. The Qualifying Offer (QO) has been established at $17.2 million, meaning the Mets have to offer Walker that much on a one-year deal if they want to insure themselves getting a draft pick should Walker end up signing with another club. FanGraphs calculates the production of Walker’s 2016 season being worth $29.9 million on the open market, which means that a QO is not unreasonable.
But the club will also have to factor in Walker’s back surgery, the history of middle infielders in the QO-era and the decline rate of second baseman on the wrong side of 30. Walker turned 31 in September.
No one can predict when a player will decline, or more drastically fall off a cliff. The general aging model has a player improving through his early 20s, having a peak in his late 20s and then a decline in his 30s. We saw that model shattered during the offensive explosion of the late 90s-early aughts but it seems to be relevant again now.
But what’s true for the group doesn’t apply exactly to every individual or, specifically in this case – to every position. As an example of the former, Curtis Granderson has been more productive in his 30s than he was in his 20s. As for the latter, Mets fans can certainly attest to how second basemen like Edgardo Alfonzo, Roberto Alomar and Carlos Baerga fell from elite level early, and at an alarming pace.
The more time spent thinking about the Walker situation, the better the QO seems to me, assuming that the money doesn’t take away the ability to re-sign Yoenis Cespedes. Walker can fall off considerably from his production of last year and still be worth the money. And if he does indeed go off the cliff, you’re only responsible for one season with the QO.
But there’s still the doubt if Walker will accept it.