With an energized style of play on a Yankees team that can look listless at times and a no-frills “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” approach to the game, Neil Walker is fast becoming a replica of last season’s sparkplug, Todd Frazier.
What’s there to like about Neil Walker? He spent more than half of this season struggling to get his batting average above the .200 mark. He has a very pedestrian career average of .269. He doesn’t supply much power, doesn’t steal bases, and is adequate but hardly remarkable defensively. Why is he still on a Yankees team that is dedicated to achieving their 28th World Championship?
More than any other professional sport, baseball is a game of numbers. Put up some significant numbers in the right categories over a period of time and a player is destined to be installed in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Which is why even tainted stars of the past like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will one day stand at the podium in Cooperstown.
But Yankees fans and all fans of baseball know that lurking behind the numbers is this thing called the intangibles. These intangibles are the traits assigned to players who do little more than find ways to help their team win, without supplying the big numbers and with zero chance of one day making the Hall of Fame. They carry lunchpails to work every day, leaving the gold chains at home.
These are players always seen on the top step of the dugout and one of the first players to arrive for work on any given day. Neil Walker checks all of these boxes and more. Do you want versatility? Check that box too. Against the White Sox Wednesday night, Neil Walker added a start at third base to other starts at first base, second base, and right field.
Heroics? Not too often, but every once in a while these role players will surprise as Neil Walker did the other night against the White Sox when Aaron Boone sent him to the plate as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth and this is what happened…
This is a Yankees team that was built one way, only to find that circumstances forced a rebirth of the team mid-season. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius have all lost significant time due to injury at a critical stage of the season. In the interim, Aaron Boone made due with what he had. If you had told him Neil Walker would be his starting right fielder for a good number of games in Spring Training, he would have grinned thinking, idiot, next question please.
As of today’s game against the Tigers, the Yankees are 35 games over .500. That’s not good enough to catch the Red Sox, but it’s a lock the Yankees will win more than 100 games this season. To accomplish what they have, position players like the Neil Walker’s, Luke Voit‘s, and Austin Romine‘s, of the Yankee’s universe were needed to keep the team on a steady course, especially after the debacle in Boston.
At this point, it should not surprise anyone if Aaron Judge does not appear in a game until mid-September – and that’s if all the stars align perfectly. Giancarlo Stanton continues to run on fumes and is in dire need of a few days off. Ditto Brett Gardner, who just finished his typical worst month of the season in August.
The deal swung by Brian Cashman at the last possible moment for Andrew McCutchen is a jolt to the team in a most positive way. Another consummate professional, McCutchen, who is only 31 by the way, will see ample playing time in the Yankees outfield and supplant Gardner as the Yankee’s lead-off batter, moving Gardner to the number nine hole.
This is a Yankees team that is still evolving. Beginning on Monday, the Yankees will face their first real test in a month when they embark on a three-city road trip taking them to Oakland, Seattle, and Minnesota.
With the return of Gary Sanchez today, along with the expected return of Didi Gregorius on Monday, the Yankees will almost be running on all cylinders offensively. The absence of Judge in their lineup is glaring, but so what? These are the cards that have been dealt to the team and, therefore, the ones they have to play with.
More and more, this Yankees team is reminding of last year’s team when the right mix of players made their way into the clubhouse following another Brian Cashman remix of the team, leading to a torrid September. They don’t need to be that good this season… just good enough to cement their status as the top Wild Card team in the American League.
Of certain is the fact that role players like Walker, McCutchen, Ronald Torreyes, Voit, and yes, even Brett Gardner at this stage of his career, will continue to figure heavily in the ultimate future of the 2018 New York Yankees.