NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Shortly after the Pirates lost to the Cubs in the National League Wild Card Game, Neil Walker stood in front of his locker and wondered aloud if he had played his last game with his hometown team. The question followed him for two months ... until Wednesday afternoon, when he was traded to the Mets for left-hander Jon Niese.
The Pirates officially announced the deal on Wednesday afternoon, on the third day of the Winter Meetings at the Opryland Hotel. Walker, 30, will satisfy the Mets' need for a second baseman after Daniel Murphy became a free agent and Ben Zobrist opted to sign with the Cubs. In Niese the Pirates have acquired a starter to fill their rotation and replace left-hander J.A. Happ, who signed with the Blue Jays earlier this offseason.
In that respect, general manager Neal Huntington called the deal a simple baseball trade, with each club dealing from a position of depth to fill a hole. But for many fans, and surely for Walker himself, the trade is about more than simply baseball.
"It's impossible to keep it entirely separate," Huntington said. "It certainly factored into the process and certainly weighed on us as we walked through the overall impact of the decision. In a vacuum, it's a very simple, good baseball trade. But there's a lot more to it, and we recognize that."
Walker is a native of Pittsburgh, a graduate of Pine-Richland High School who still lives nearby. He was drafted by the Pirates in 2004 and spent his entire 12-year career with them, realizing the dream of playing for his favorite team.
"We greatly appreciate Neil and all he has done for our club, both on the field and in our community," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said in a statement. "He has always represented his hometown team with a great sense of pride and passion. For that we thank him and wish him and his family nothing but success as he continues his career in New York."
Ultimately, the Pirates believed this was the right time to move Walker. He is heading into his final year of arbitration before becoming eligible for free agency, and is projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to make $10.7 million next season.
The Bucs have an in-house replacement in Josh Harrison, and Jung Ho Kang will be their regular third baseman when he returns to full health. The Pirates will pursue a utility infielder to bridge the gap, if one exists, between Opening Day and whenever Kang returns.
Walker and the Pirates previously discussed a multiyear contract extension, but the two sides could never come to an agreement. Speaking on a conference call to New York reporters on Wednesday night, Walker said they were never close to reaching a deal.
"No, to put it plainly," Walker said. "I think it's kind of the motto of how they handle their books, I guess you can say.
"I have no ill feelings, but certainly given the circumstances, with being from Pittsburgh and never knowing anything else and coming up through the system and having a lot of ups and downs, [it's] definitely something that was unfortunate, I guess you could say. I don't have to worry about that, and I'm excited to be in Met blue."
"We gave up a very good player to get what we believe to be a very good pitcher," Huntington said.
The deal came together "relatively quickly," Huntington said, after Zobrist signed with the Cubs on Tuesday night, leaving the Mets with a pressing need at second base. Huntington called Walker after finalizing the trade, thanking him for his time in Pittsburgh and wishing him well in New York.
"He was professional, disappointed to be leaving Pittsburgh, very proud of all that he's helped accomplish and all that he's accomplished in Pittsburgh," Huntington said. "I told him he has a chance to return to Pittsburgh, every single time he comes back, a hero. He played a big role in helping us get to where we've gotten to. He should be incredibly proud of that."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Now in Pittsburgh, Niese is unlikely to draw significant attention in 2016 mixed-league drafts, as he has a lifetime 3.91 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP and a 7.0 K/9 rate. But wise fantasy owners will note the success that Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has had in improving the effectiveness of several starters, such as Liriano, Happ and Edinson Volquez. As a result, Niese is a strong sleeper candidate in the final rounds of '16 mixed-league drafts.
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.