For a very, very long time, we’ve talked about how the Diamondbacks have a vortex coming. It’s a financial vortex and one that’s not necessarily unique. The way the D-backs are constructed, they rely on young players producing value that far outpaces the team’s financial commitment in terms of salary. That means guys making the league minimum or advancing through arbitration that make very little, as compared to free agents, but produce well relative to what they’re owed. As a team with a consistently below-average payroll, this is a necessity. We can question the merits of such a scenario, but it’s a scenario the organization has embraced. It places a ton of emphasis on drafting and developing well since they can’t just buy their way to contention.
In a way, one has to appreciate that fiscally-conservative approach that prioritizes growing your own talent. The problem comes when that talent starts to get expensive. Back in 2015, we here at Inside the ‘Zona coined the idea of the Contention Window which posited that the team would be in a great place to succeed in 2017 and 2018. Not to pat one’s self on the back, but that idea has held steady and it didn’t take a genius to see it coming (though no one in their right mind forecast the signing of Zack Greinke way back when). The D-backs had a core of young talent that was supposed to peak right about now, and peak they have. Some payroll came off the books and the team was going to be in a position to add. They did that and have matched the additions with internal improvements to become a force in the National League.
We also thought that the team was going to be in a place come 2019 when they were going to have blow the whole thing up. After a disastrous 2016 campaign, and with a new GM installed, we even wondered if the deconstruction might come sooner than expected. Instead, Mike Hazen stayed the course and the rest is playoff history. Which puts us back on the original trajectory with 2019 being The Great Unknown. The reason for that “unknown” is simply affordability. The team is set to lose Patrick Corbin, Randall Delgado and A.J. Pollock to free agency as they enter 2018 in their last year of team control. They could presumably fill Delgado’s void rather easily, but Corbin and Pollock have been key contributors for the last several years and should have solid free agent markets. Meanwhile, Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas are signed players who will see salary increases and Robbie Ray, David Peralta, Jake Lamb, Archie Bradley and others will all be due arbitration raises. Maybe a healthy Shelby Miller, along with an Anthony Banda, Taylor Clarke or Jon Duplantier can shore up the rotation gap left by Corbin. But there is no heir apparent to Pollock in the organization and they are highly likely to enter 2019 with a hole in center field.
That hole assumes that Pollock won’t be back, something that seemed inevitable just 12 months ago. But as we’ve seen The New Market take shape for free agents, maybe we should rethink that notion. As stated above, Pollock will enter free agency in 2019, and if we’re looking for a recent comparison, we might do well to look at current free agent Lorenzo Cain. Entering the offseason, Cain was the top center field candidate on the market and an easy top-10 free agent overall. Predictions suggested that he may be in line for something like four years and $68 million, good for an AAV of $17 million. The Giants had a whole to fill in center but went the trade route and grabbed Andrew McCutchen. The Blue Jays could have used Cain, perhaps in a corner with Kevin Pillar in center, but they also took to the trade market to snag Randal Grichuk. The Rangers keep sniffing around but have other priorities (pitching).
And that seems to really be it. Cain is a fantastic player who’s been worth 22.2 fWAR over the last five seasons since taking over as full time player. He has little to no competition on the free agent market and while he’s going to be 31 next year, his athleticism and defensive metrics suggest that he’s not about to slow down in the immediate future. He’s been worth 4 fWAR or better in three of the past four seasons and is projected for 3.3 WAR next year by Steamer. He’s not an MVP-caliber player, but a guy worth 3.5-4+ WAR is nothing to sneeze at. Since 2014, only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout have been more valuable in center. There’s an easy case to be made that he’s worth $17 million per season. And yet no one seems willing to bite (though we can’t know what he’s asking for). Cain appears just one of the many victims of The New Market — a guy with plenty of value that’s having an awfully hard time finding a home.
A.J. Pollock is set to hit free agency at age-30, one year younger than Cain. That’s a big deal as teams use age as a bit of a proxy, in general, to mitigating risk. But Pollock has had his share of injury issues. Over the last four years, Cain has played 531 games (132.75/season) while Pollock has logged just 356 (89/season). So maybe we all the age discrepancy a wash since Pollock has spent so much time on the DL. Outside of that issue, the two are pretty similar players, as you’ll see below (keep an eye on the y-axis for the metric du jour):
Both are generally above average offensive players overall. Pollock gets the nod for power output and strikes out a little bit less. Both walk at about an average clip and can steal their share of bases (games played impacts the totals here). Both are above-average defensive outfielders. Steamer projects Pollock to be a slightly better offensive player and Cain to be a slightly better defensive player in 2019. It’d be hard to argue against Cain being the superior defensive player, but you can argue that bats are harder to find than gloves when it comes to center fielders. Maybe there’s some small gap here in terms of how teams value Cain now and how they will value Pollock in 2019. There is another year for Pollock to play, after all. But as of this moment, they seem pretty similar.
So what will that mean for Pollock as he enters free agency? Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are going to dominate the headlines next winter, no doubt. But Pollock could be then, like Cain is now, a quality player hung out to dry. And if, for some reason, he can be kept for something like $12 to $15 million per season, maybe there’s a chance that the Diamondbacks find the money to keep him around. And if he becomes affordable and he is retained, how does that effect The Great Unknown? Maybe the team won’t have to completely blow things up after all. That cash could be invested instead in Paul Goldschmidt, and that’s surely the better investment, but maybe it’s Greinke that finally goes and Pollock and Goldschmidt become the core with the rotation revolving around Robbie Ray and some young pieces stepping up. That’s more “ifs” than I’m usually comfortable with, but it’s at least worthy of consideration. At the very least, it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that A.J. Pollock will walk given what we’ve seen from this winter’s spending, or lack thereof.
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