The Yankees are in an enviable spot right now. Even with their on-again, off-again rotation issues, the Yankees are 22 games over .500 on June 8th, and their +87 run differential is fourth best in baseball. That 9-9 start to the season is far back in the rear-view mirror. I mean, when you struggle and still go 9-9, you’re pretty good.
On top of their record and run differential, the Yankees also have incredible depth at the moment. Guys like Brandon Drury, Clint Frazier, Ronald Torreyes, and Tommy Kahnle are all big league players stashed in Triple-A. Top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield is knocking on the door. Things could be worse. Depth is cool. Depth is important.
The Yankees are so deep right now that Neil Walker, a consistently above-average big leaguer who hit in the middle of the order for (mostly) contending teams from 2013-17, is stuck on the bench with no clear path to playing time. Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres have been too good to sit, and the Yankees love Greg Bird, so he’s going to play.
Walker started the season terribly, of course, but he’s been much better these last few weeks, hitting .300/.407/.500 (151 wRC+) with nearly as many walks (13.6%) as strikeouts (15.0%) in May. Remember when he started a game-winning rally every game for like a week straight? Walker was in the middle of everything for a little while there.
Since Bird returned, however, Walker has been mostly glued to the bench. He’s started only four games in the last two weeks, and one of those starts came in the second game of the doubleheader in Detroit, when not every regular was going to play both games. Walker is 1-for-8 so far in June. Eight at-bats in eight days.
On one hand, the Yankees have a very good — very good and very young — infield, and that’s a wonderful thing. Tough to get Walker into the lineup when you have Bird, Torres, and Andujar. On the other hand, Walker probably needs to get involved more often to produce. Tough to sit on the bench three or four days in a row, then come out and play well, especially when you’ve been an everyday player your entire career.
The Yankees don’t seem eager to cut ties with Walker — unloading Walker and bringing Torreyes back would seem to be the obvious move — and that makes sense to me. He’s been a good player throughout his career and keeping good players around is something contending teams do. Bird’s not the most durable guy in the world. It’s not difficult to see Walker having to fill in at first base again at some point.
Also, if the Yankees are going to cut ties with Walker at some point, I think it’s more likely he gets included in a trade as a way to offset salary (a la Tyler Clippard last year) than straight up released. The luxury tax plan is real and the Yankees are looking to maximize every dollar. They won’t eat his $4M salary if at all possible.
It’s a tough spot for Walker and a minor nuisance for the Yankees. He wants to play and, chances are, the more he plays the more productive he’ll be. The Yankees can rest easy knowing they have very good young players on the infield and a quality veteran behind them in case things go wrong. Walker wouldn’t be out of place in an everyday role.
This is normally where I’d argue the Yankees should give Walker a little more playing time, perhaps one start each at first, second, and third bases each week, but you know what? No. Let the kids play. They’ve been good. Maybe Bird needs more rest than the typical 25-year-old given his injuries. Otherwise stick with the kids and use Walker sparingly. That’s the best thing right now.
Walker’s been a rock solid player for a long time now and he was one of many who got screwed over in free agency this past winter. Teams decided to stop spending, all at once (is there a word for that?), and guys like Walker were left out in the cold. The Yankees grabbed him basically as an insurance policy, in case someone got hurt and in case the kids struggled. They haven’t, and that means limited playing time and no defined role for Walker.