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Walk to First

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Neil Walker’s contract expires after the 2016 season. The Pirates second baseman is due for a big raise in arbitration this offseason, likely to $10 million.

Signing him to a long-term extension will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-$15 million annually -- perhaps as much as $18 million.

There are plenty of sound baseball reasons for the Pirates to part ways with Walker.

He's on the wrong side of 30 for a long-term multi-million dollar contract. He's been prone to injury, his bat tends to disappear in October, and at 6-3, 210-lbs, his second base range is likely on the decline.

Obviously, however, parting ways with Walker will cause a fan backlash.

A Pittsburgh native, Walker is a member of the so-called "Lost Generation" of Pirates fans who were too young to remember the great teams of the early 90's, and instead were cursed with 20 years of losing. Walker went from a kid in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium to a player whose achievements quite literally turned the franchise around. His is a story unique to Pittsburgh.

If the Pirates let Walker walk but still continue to win, they will survive any fan backlash. But they'd still be without the feel-good story—and the marketing opportunities—that having Walker on the roster provides.

There's an easy way to keep Walker's bat in the lineup, his face on posters and his fans happy.

Move him to first base.

The team remains in desperate need of a first baseman. Pedro Alvarez is virtually guaranteed to be moved; if not over the offseason then certainly during the regular season.

Clint Hurdle has already said Walker to first base won't happen, but that hardly matters.

With Walker at first, the rest of the infield would consist of Jung Ho Kung at third, Jordy Mercer at short and Josh Harrison at second. Walker is athletic enough to make the transition and he certainly won’t be worse than Alvarez defensively.

Even more importantly, the Pirates can afford Walker as a first baseman. They can no longer afford Walker at second.

Only six second baseman earned more than Walker's $8 million last year. Of those six, only Robinson Cano hit more homers. Only Cano and Ian Kinsler drove in more runs, and Walker's OPS was fourth among Major League Baseball's highest-earners at second base. His offensive production will demand a high salary as a second baseman.

Compare Walker's offensive numbers to the highest-paid first basemen, however, and he doesn't shine nearly as brightly – which means he won't command as much money.

Only one first baseman who earned more money than Walker last year posted worse power numbers: Tampa Bay’s James Loney, who missed more than a third of the season due to injury.

Finding a replacement for Alvarez will likely cost as much or more than it will to re-sign Walker.

Putting Walker at first base translates to a more team-friendly contract, and it eliminates the extra cost of adding a first baseman from outside the organization.

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