By now you’re well-aware that A.J. Pollock is really good. He was, after all, as second round draft pick, so it’s not like there was no way to see this coming. 17th overall picks are occasionally good baseball players, especially when compared to later picks. He’s always had tools, even since his college days. He was destined to stick in centerfield and once the hit tool came around, well, there was no denying that he’d be a major leaguer of some variety. Sure, he’s eclipsed what many saw as his likely potential, but that happens sometimes, and when that happens, it’s a good thing. A.J. Pollock has turned into a really good thing for the Diamondbacks, but he’s also about to turn into a really expensive thing for the Diamondbacks, one way or another.
Prior to the 2015 campaign, I lobbied for the D-backs to consider extending Pollock. If you don’t recall, I broke down the long-term projections for his defense, base running and offense. In sum, it went like this:
So how would we project Pollock over the next five years? His defense should hold relatively steady, provided he stays mostly healthy and doesn’t suffer any injuries that limit his range in a severe way. In all likelihood, he remains a very good center fielder for two or three more seasons, then just becomes good. On the bases, we probably see something similar, where he remains a good base runner for two or three more seasons before slowing down a bit an becoming just slightly above average. Both in the field and on the bases, A.J. is a valuable asset for the next five years provided he doesn’t suffer any drastic, debilitating injuries.
Offense is harder to project as there are plenty of variables at play, and while no one has a crystal ball (at least not a functional one), there are some generalities we can assume. First, as players age, they tend to get a better grasp on the strike zone until their skill set really starts to erode in their mid to late 30’s. For Pollock, that might look like a strike out rate that holds steady or drops a little and hopefully more walks. Players also tend to hit for more power as they age and I think, given his reputation and build, it’s not outlandish to think that A.J. will hit more home runs, perhaps as many as 15 or 18 in his peak season. As he ages, he might lose a step and become a slightly slower runner, hurting his BABIP and ability to hit for average, eventually offsetting the increase in power down the road.
Long-term, a guy with Pollock’s athleticism should hold up pretty well. He’s not an overweight slugger who’s reliant on one tool. Instead, he can run, he can field and, apparently, he can hit. Now, he’s been on a tear at the plate pretty much all season, sans the first two or three weeks. Some of that production appears unsustainable as he’s sporting a .362 BABIP at the moment, but with his speed and line drive swing, we’d pretty much always expect him to rate higher than average in that department. And even with some regression, he’s still a very good hitter. Not elite, but very good.
So with that in mind, I lobbied for the team to give him a five-year, $35 million extension. That seemed incredibly fair for the team in that they would lock up Pollock through arbitration and one free agent year. The deal would also secure long-term financial flexibility for Pollock, a guy who’s only made about a million dollars to date. That was both affordable for the team and likely appealing for A.J. But, that was before he picked up in 2015 right where he left off in 2014. Now he’s an All-Star caliber player without a doubt and has done some head-turning around baseball. The Diamondbacks are well on their way to having two household names, and while I think people slept on Pollock about a half a season too long, he’s clearly put himself on the map.And that won’t help when it comes to securing his services beyond 2018.
Really the team has two options here Let’s break them both down and see what the best course of action is now that things have surely changed.
Work out an Extension
There’s nothing stopping Arizona from still seeking to extend Pollock. If they want to approach his representation, something that’s perhaps even happened already, they can certainly do so. They could still look for the same time length of commitment, but they’d likely have to up their investment. Pollock is no longer a potentially promising player coming off an injured season, he’s now an All-Star player who’s producing like one of baseball’s best outfielders in every facet of the game. He’s going to want to be paid like it. My guess is that, what would now be a four-year extension, would cost the team more like $40+ million dollars. If they were to explore the exact thing I laid out this winter, it’ll cost them an extra five or six million dollars now. That’s perhaps even a conservative estimate. In defense of Pollock, though, he’s the kind of guy you build around and securing someone like that shouldn’t come cheaply.
Play it Year-by-Year
Pollock is playing for the league minimum this year, for the last time. He becomes arbitration eligible this winter and, if he keeps up anything similar to his current pace, he’ll be seeing a sizable raise. If we’re looking for a salary range, we can check out this year’s arbitration cases. The amount a player like Josh Donaldson received ($4.3M) seems too high, but the amount Jarrod Dyson received ($1.2) sounds too low. Brandon Belt ($3.6M) and Lorenzo Cain (2.7M) seem like a good comps considering their past production and I think we could see Pollock fit somewhere between the two. Let’s call it $3.2 million. While that may still sound like a bargain (it is, really), it’s a bargain that will surely expire. If he were to continue being a 3.5-4 win player, it wouldn’t be crazy to think he could get $6.5 million in 2017 and over ten million in 2018. At that point, if the team went that route, he’d become a free agent after 2018 heading into is age 31 season.
Now, a 31-year old free agent center fielder isn’t the most attractive thing ever, but if Pollock were to stay relatively close to his current production up until then, he’d still be an expensive commodity, even it was only on a three or four-year deal. Three and four-win players don’t just grow on trees, and even if Pollock were to lose a step over that span, he could still probably patrol center and as players age, they tend to hit for more power. So trade a little defense and a few steals for a few more dingers and Pollock is still quite valuable in center, even at 31. He may command something like $55 million over four years should he hold up physically. That’s a price that will still be steep for this club even when the new TV money rolls in, plus they should be very competitive at this time, making for an untimely exist depending on who they have internally to replace him.
And, let’s not forget that they are already going to owe him between $17-21 million over the next three seasons through arbitration. That’s a sunk cost if they wish to retain him through his team control, something they surely intend to do. There’s already a heavy financial commitment involved, and by going year-to-year, they risk losing I’m at the end of the 2018. There’s real risk here.
Of course, they could also choose to go year-to-year in case he falters sometime in the interim. While the team wouldn’t wish another injury on him, it would help keep the price down. And, if they believe this is the peak for Pollock, extending him now would be buying when prices are the highest. Should he suffer an injury or have a down season or two, the team would certainly be justified in staying the course on a year-to-year strategy as it limits the risk while also bringing down his arbitration salaries.
What to Do
This still boils down to the same issues as before, but the stakes are raised. How much do the Diamondbacks believe in A.J. Pollock? If he were to want $55 million for a four-year extension, they should walk away. But if he’s willing to take $40 million over that same length of time, or they can coax an extra year of control out of him, then it’s worth considering. Still, the team has lost the upper hand here. They won’t be going out on a limb and buying low; they’ll be paying at the height of his production.That’s not something you want to be in the habit of doing if you’re a club with financial constraints.
The prime time has passed on extending A.J. Pollock. If the D-backs weren’t believers before, they should be now. How they project him to age is a different matter, but he’s getting more expensive every day and the clock is ticking. Last winter was the time to get a team-friendly deal done, but that’s old news. Now it’s a matter of determining how comfortable they are with either an extension or him walking away when the team is at its peak. That’s a question that I’m sure they’ve mulled over. What they’ve decided on, however, is yet to be seen.
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