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Tuesday September 25 2018
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Walking Blues

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Neil Walker is, by all accounts, a hell of a guy. He's a very good baseball player too. And now he'll play for the New York Mets. And that’s not a big deal. It's not a reason to feel bad for Neil. It's certainly not a tragedy.

Nor is it a reason for Pirates' fans—or Walker, for that matter—to feel somehow “betrayed” by an act of treachery.

This was a baseball trade. Two grown men will get paid handsomely to do their jobs in a different city next summer. It’s that simple.

Nor was this a money dump. Walker will likely make between $10 and $11 million in 2016. Jonathon Niese, the fellow coming to Pittsburgh in exchange for Walker, will earn $9 million in 2016, $10 million in 2017 and $11 million in 2018.

Niese was the fifth starter on a World Series team last season. Had he been wearing a Pirates uniform in September, he'd have had the same role. But perhaps the Pirates would have won a few more games and avoided their third straight Wild Card appearance. Niese fills a major need for the Pirates.

Walker, quite frankly, was exactly the type of player a contender like the Pirates should trade. He's set to make a ton of money in 2016, after which he'll command even more. Walker is in line for a multi-year contract that could pay him between $12 million and $15 million per season, although it’s easy to see him signing a deal worth $18 million annually – for at least four years. Walker will be 31 when he signs that deal; he'll be at least 35 when it's finally up.

That kind of contract for a player Walker’s age simply does not make sense. Without Wednesday’s trade, Walker would have walked away from the organization one year from now and the Pirates would have nothing to show for it.

General manager Neal Huntington has known that for some time. It's why Jung Ho Kang wears a Pirates uniform. With Kang at third, Jordy Mercer at short and Josh Harrison at second, moving Walker now—painful though it may be—only makes sense in baseball terms.

And “baseball terms” is what Huntington is paid to operate in. He can’t afford to dole out contacts based on what fans want (remember the Jason Kendall contract?). Huntington has been second to none in baseball when it comes to doing exactly that.

Pirates’ fans started screaming the day Huntington traded Jack Wilson and Jason Bay—both good guys and good baseball players—who were the cornerstones of the 95-loss team Huntington inherited. Those same fans haven't stopped complaining since.

But along the way, Huntington built a playoff team, and—even more important—transformed a barren wasteland of a farm system into a deep and fruitful minor league organization.

The Pirates have prospects ranked in the top 10 at every position except shortstop. They are better positioned for long term success now than at any time since the 1970's.

Did you like what the Cubs did last year?

The Pirates are on the brink of a similar youth movement. The difference is that the major league product in Pittsburgh is already really good. The roster has a National League MVP surrounded by a group of players on the verge of becoming dynamic stars like Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang... as well as a just 24-year-old Gregory Polanco.

Now write some names down: Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Elias Diaz.

There's another wave after those guys, one that includes Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez and Ke'Bryan Hayes.

What you're watching—or rather, what you're missing if you're spending your time whining over the departures of Walker and Pedro Alvarez—is a team that's doing it right. A plan was put in place when Huntington arrived in 2007, and he's been executing it ever since. Huntington hasn't deviated from his plan and the Pirates have benefitted.

The same plan that saw Huntington trade Neil Walker is the same plan that landed Harrison, Mark Melancon and A.J. Burnett. It's the adherence to principle that landed Russell Martin and later Francisco Cervelli. It's the reason the team wound up with Kang.Pirates Neil Walker

At some point, however, the guys in the dugout have to do their part. If they did, Pirates' fans might watch the team in the World Series.

Four Pirates have played extensively in the postseason: Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Marte and Mercer. Between them, they have 105 postseason at bats. They've produced one home run, two RBI and four extra base hits.

Neil Walker remains a great guy. He's a great guy who had the chance to live the dream of playing professional baseball in his hometown. He played an enormous part in turning the Pirates' franchise around on the field and in winning the hearts of the fans off it. Those memories—both for him and for Pirates fans—will remain forever.

And now Walker will play for the Mets. And it's not a big deal.

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