As Neil Walker’s sixth full season in the big leagues comes to a close, the writing on the wall couldn’t be more clear, per the Trib’s Rob Biertempfel. All indications from both Walker and the Pirates’ management suggest that Walker will not remain a Pirate after his salary arbitration period expires at the end of the 2016 season, if he isn’t moved before that time.

Trib columnist Rob Rossi wrote Sunday that the Pirates not extending Walker past next season would be “a joke,” due to his contributions both on and off the field and his unfailingly endearing Pittsburgh roots.

The easier response for fans to that concept would be with strong emotion, knowing that a player with hometown ties that has been a part of the team’s renaissance could be sent on his way.

But GM Neal Huntington has to evaluate Walker objectively in terms of how he helps the organization in the future. Unfortunately, Walker’s local ties and relationship with the other veteran players make that job harder.

And while the emotional decision to keep Neil Walker at second base in black and gold might be a consensus no-brainer in Aisle 9 at your neighborhood Giant Eagle, the rational decision on Federal Street to move on from Walker is just as critical.

Therein, as the Bard would say, lies the rub.

For Walker, the opportunity to continue his career playing the sport he loves in his hometown is a personal decision. For the Pirates, choosing whether or not to extend that opportunity is strictly business, and it should stay that way.

As real as Walker’s Pine-Richland High School diploma is the fact that he recently turned 30 years old, which is the proverbial crossroads for men who turn the pivot at the top of a baseball diamond for a living.

And as history tells us, even the best second basemen find themselves closer to the end of the road than the beginning once they pass through that chronological intersection.

Using five-year intervals dating back the last 25 years, the top-ranking National League second basemen in wins above replacement (according to Fangraphs) have been Ryne Sandberg (1986-91), Craig Biggio (1991-95, 1996-2000), Jeff Kent (2001-05), Chase Utley (2006-10) and Brandon Phillips (2011-15).

Those five men have three things in common: all of them have at least three All-Star selections, at least one season with an fWAR of 4.0 or better by age 29 and a career-high single season WAR of 5.0 or better.

You know who hasn’t accomplished any of the three? Neil Walker. He has never been chosen for the midsummer classic and his 3.7 fWAR in 2014 (his age 28 season) is a career high. What also doesn’t help Walker’s case is his fWAR dropping to 2.3 this season and his defense by advanced metrics has already been on the decline since 2013.

Another similarity among the aforementioned quintet that doesn’t bode well for Walker: Sandberg, Biggio, Kent, Utley and Phillips each saw a drastic decrease in fWAR from their peak season to the next after age 30 (the average age was 32).

This is the dilemma the Pirates face: a second baseman on the wrong side of 30 with declining numbers that might not be consistent with a pay raise next season that will likely raise his salary from $8 million to eight figures.

A likely replacement for Walker at second base is Josh Harrison, who signed a four-year $27.3 million extension in April. Harrison, who turned 28 in July, had a breakout 2014 season where he was named to the National League All-Star team and had an fWAR of 5.0, which exceeded Utley’s NL-leading 4.5 among second basemen. Harrison also played at least 100 innings at four different positions (second base among them) and another 41 innings at shortstop.

While you could argue Harrison may have already hit his peak statistically, he is also already closer to that group of five than Walker is at two years younger and with a cheaper price tag of $5 million next season.

So all things considered, should the Pirates keep an aging player who might be too expensive with declining production and an increasing salary simply because his birth certificate was issued in Allegheny County, or should they opt for better, younger production at half the cost?

Some may call the decision not to keep said player a joke. I call it a good business decision.

That isn’t to say the Pirates shouldn’t be grateful for what Walker has done; he is still the local face of a franchise that he rooted for as a child, was drafted by as a teenager and helped to rise from the ashes of two decades of ineptitude as an adult.

My sincere hope is that if and when Walker and the Pirates decide to part ways, Walker is at least given the opportunity for the team and the fans to show the appreciation that he deserves. Regardless of whatever uniform he puts on the rest of his professional career, he should (and will) always be remembered as a Pirate first.

But if the decision is indeed made to let him go, it shouldn’t be seen as personal. At the end of the day, it’s just business.

Posted in Sports Talk Radio