Neil Walker expected to be playing for the Mets, not against them this season in the Subway Series, which is scheduled to conclude Monday night in the Bronx.
A 2017 contract extension with the Mets that never happened became a defining financial moment of Walker's career and, as it turned out, still resonates as he faces another offseason of uncertainty as a potential free agent.
With the Yankees, Walker has gotten at-bats at four different positions—outfield, first, second and third base. At 32 he is trying to make the most of his role as a utility player.
“I’m in a good place, unfortunately with the injuries to [Aaron] Judge and Gary [Sanchez] I've been given regular at-bats,” Walker said over the weekend. “It took a while to get to a good place as far as producing. It's good to be able to help, especially in a playoff run.”
Walker is batting .227 for the season, but he has come on of late with four home runs and 15 runs batted in the last 23 games. He made his major league debut as a rightfielder Saturday and could see regular time there until Judge returns from his injured wrist.
Still, there are tempered expectations for a utility player. Walker had two home runs in Thursday’s victory over the Rangers and was not in the lineup the next night. “I think any time you have two home runs you expect to be in there,” he said. “At the same time I’ve played a lot lately and I had a little kink in my neck it seemed like the right time, I needed to get a little work on my neck and it feels better, but obviously I want to be in there every day. I don't write the lineup card ,and I’m not going to argue with the people who are.”
Walker is not going to complain, saying, “It took time to get into a different mindset, it's something that takes time to learn. It took me a while to get into the right frame of mind, the right place to figure out what works where it be two days not playing or five days whatever the case may be. [But] I think every single player will tell you that regular at-bats is something that helps them. I think I have a decent grasp now on how to help more if the situation does come back that I’m not an everyday player.”
He was the Mets second baseman in spring training of 2017 and was reportedly negotiating a three-year extension for $42 million. Walker said the Mets pulled the offer. “It's well documented that I never turned down anything,” he said. “They can say what they want and I’m not going to get into that. As far as a miscalculation on my part, absolutely not.
“Trust me, I’m a well-educated baseball player. What was out there, I was willing to take. There's some gray area that I'm not willing to speak on. No stone was left unturned as far as that’s concerned.”
The Mets have not commented on the matter.
Walker was traded to the Brewers last August and became a free agent at the end of the season. That usually means a big payday, but there were no takers all winter and Walker didn't get a phone call until the Yankees offered him a one-year deal in mid-March for $4 million. He started Opening Day at second base but got off to a slow start at the plate.
“I know what I’m capable of, I knew with time, if they were patient and gave me the right amount of at-bats, that I was going to get back on track,” Walker said. “I had no question. I was in a different place as far as playing time, figuring out how to stay sharp without regular at-bats. I’ve been in this market and this city and been part of professional baseball for a long time, so the expectation levels, I understand those. I understand what's expected of myself when you have a track record as I do, you get less caught up in what other people are saying and more caught up in how can I get back to doing what I know I'm capable of doing and what I've done in the past.”
Players usually get excited about free agency. Walker is not certain what it will bring. He likely faces that again this offseason if the Yankees do not bring him back. “I don’t know, I really haven’t given any thought,” Walker said. “I’ll worry about that after we win the World Series. Honestly, I don't think [free agency] could get any worse than this past offseason. Me and a lot of other guys had been kind of taken through the meat grinder as far as that’s concerned. I feel like I’m more prepared at this point. Obviously, going through this was not something I’d wish upon anybody, any veteran player but coming out the other end of it today I’m going to be more prepared moving forward.”
Walker still sees himself as an everyday player, saying, “I believe that. I don’t know what will be out there. I thought there would be a clear-cut everyday job for me this past offseason. That wasn't the case. You kind of hope for the best but prepare for the worse where we are now in the game for the middle-tier free agent, so we’ll see.”