With just 17 days on the calendar until the Yankees open in Toronto, Brian Cashman made one last free agent splash. The team inked infielder Neil Walker to a one-year major-league deal worth to $4 million plus $500K in incentives for plate appearances.
Walker, who slashed .265/.362/.439 (114 wRC+) in 111 games between the Mets and the Brewers, found himself unemployed deep into the offseason after a 2017 that saw him place 15th in fWAR amongst second basemen with at least 400 plate appearances. He did miss 36 games in 2017 after suffering a partial tear in his left hamstring suffered June 14.
“We had some talks early in the winter that didn’t quite work out, and we went down different avenues of what else might be out there after that, but fortunately, things circled back here, and I’m just happy to be here on a contending team,” Walker told reporters prior to Monday’s tilt with the Minnesota Twins in Tampa.
The 32-year-old looks to fit in a couple different places for the Yankees. As a switch-hitter, he provides balance to a lineup that is mostly dominated by right-handed batters. His defensive versatility is also quite useful, given that he suited up at third base, second base and first base last season. Walker’s contract also allows the Yankees to move on from him if youngsters like Miguel Andújar or Gleyber Torres start knocking down the door to the big leagues.
Walker likely opens the season rotating between third, second and first depending on platoon splits and how the rest of the team is performing. His stats showed a huge disadvantage against lefties last season, though his career splits show just a 10-point difference between his skills from both sides of the plate.
The veteran had been working out at “Camp Jobless,” the Spring Training camp for free agents created by the MLBPA in Bradenton, Fla., for the time that it was open. Aaron Boone told reporters that Walker could appear in a Grapefruit League game as early as Thursday.
The beginning of Walker’s Yankees career could mark the end for outfielder Jake Cave. Cave, who was slashing .158/.304/.211 in 19 at-bats this spring, was designated for assignment to open a 40-man roster spot for the Yankees’ incoming signing. Cave had been added to the 40-man after the 2017 season to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent. He had hit .305/.351/.542 with 20 homers and 56 RBIs, both career-highs, between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2017.
Cave fell out of favor in Yankees camp because of the team’s outfield glut and the success of Billy McKinney in camp. The Yankees have 10 days to trade, release or outright Cave to the minors if he clears waivers. He has never been outrighted before, so he will not have the right to decline the assignment if he clears waivers.
Walker’s signing also affected the spring of Danny Espinosa. The Yankees released the veteran infielder, and immediately gave his No. 14 jersey to Walker. Espinosa, who was trying to catch on as a veteran stopgap infielder or bench player, was hitting .160/.276/.320 in 12 spring games for the Bombers. He did hit one home run, and drove in four. The move is likely to allow the 30-year-old to pursue an opportunity with a club that has more playing time available at the big league level.
In his career, Espinosa has a .221/.297/.378 slash line with 98 home runs and 316 RBIs since he debuted for Washington in 2010. He struggled badly in 2017, however, bouncing between three teams and slashing a meager .173/.245/.278 with six home runs and 31 RBIs.
Lastly, the Yankees reassigned infielder Kyle Holder to minor league camp. Nothing out of the ordinary here, as the 23-year-old is projected to begin the season at Double-A Trenton. Known for his glove mostly, the Yankees’ first round pick from 2015 showed some promise at the plate in 10 games in camp. In 17 at-bats, he slashed .471/.500/.647 with three doubles and three RBIs.
Holder hit .271/.317/.350 in 104 games with Class-A Advanced Tampa, then put up strong numbers (.333/.367/.511) in 11 Arizona Fall League games.