Risk is plentiful on the free-agent market, but there may be no player this offseason who stands out as more of an intriguing gamble than A.J. Pollock.
As arguably the only starting-caliber center fielder available through free agency, Pollock should draw plenty of interest this winter -- assuming he declines the D-backs' one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer by Monday's deadline. Despite the additional cost in Draft picks of signing a player who does decline said offer, there are several clubs that could identify Pollock as an upside play who is well worth the risk.
• The latest Pollock free-agent rumors
But before getting to those teams, let's explain what makes Pollock so notable among this long-hyped free-agent class, led by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
The risk-reward dynamic with Pollock can be summed up with two stats:
1. Since the beginning of 2014, Pollock's 469 games played ties him for 218th among MLB position players.
2. Over that same span, Pollock's 17 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), per Baseball-Reference, ranks 41st in that group.
Over the past five seasons, Pollock has played in fewer games than fellow outfielders Peter Bourjos, Brandon Guyer and Ben Revere. Yet he has accrued more value than Charlie Blackmon and Khris Davis as well as fellow free agents Michael Brantley and Andrew McCutchen.
On one hand, the injury-plagued Pollock has collected 500 plate appearances in a season only once in his career, during a breakout 2015. On the other hand, his average of 3.3 WAR per season since '13 balloons to 5.9 per 650 plate appearances.
Teams can't and won't simply ignore Pollock's checkered injury history, even if it mostly lacks the sorts of chronic ailments that cause the most long-term anxiety. In 2010, the year after Arizona drafted him in the first round, Pollock lost a whole Minor League season to a right elbow fracture. In '14, following a healthy rookie campaign, he missed two months with a fractured right hand. In '16, another right elbow fracture, plus a strained left groin, limited him to 12 games. Pollock has missed a little less than two months in each of the past two seasons, thanks to a strained right groin ('17) and a fractured left thumb ('18).
Much of that could be classified as bad luck, but staying healthy also can be a skill to some extent -- one that Pollock has not demonstrated. There's also the concern about the toll of those setbacks, plus the natural aging process. Pollock batted .311/.363/.498 (131 OPS+) from 2014-15 but .261/.323/.473 (102 OPS+) since then. He turns 31 next month.
With that said, the talent still shines through. Pollock's average sprint speed of 28.2 feet per second in 2018, according to Statcast™, was well above the MLB average (27 ft./sec), and he went 13-for-15 in stolen-base attempts. He contributed plus-6 Outs Above Average (OAA) (a range-based metric for outfield defense by Statcast™) and also was plus-6 according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Although Pollock struggled offensively at times late in 2018, he was batting a robust .293/.349/.620 with 11 homers and nine steals in 40 games before sustaining the thumb fracture on a diving attempt in the outfield on May 14.
While the qualifying offer works against Pollock, the lack of competing center fielders works in his favor. The free agents with the most center-field starts in 2018 are Adam Jones (105), Pollock (105), Austin Jackson (82) and Harper (59), and it's quite possible only Pollock will be viewed as a starter at that position going forward.
So in light of that scarce market, which teams should be willing to roll the dice on Pollock? While the D-backs still could re-sign him, here are five other possibilities, listed in alphabetical order.
The Tribe is thin in the outfield, especially with Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall now free agents. That leaves some combination of Jason Kipnis, Leonys Martin, Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer (coming back from shoulder surgery) sharing center in 2019. Pollock would offer far more upside and add another right-handed bat to the mix, although Cleveland declining to make Brantley a qualifying offer suggests the team's budget could be an impediment here.
This may seem odd given that back in April, the Rox signed Blackmon to a large contract extension that runs through at least 2021, with a pair of player options. But Blackmon struggled defensively this past season (-9 OAA, -28 DRS), and with Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra free agents, Colorado has room to add Pollock, while playing Blackmon and David Dahl in the corners. Despite its reputation, the club could use the offensive boost as well, after ranking 25th in MLB in park-adjusted wRC+ (87).
New York Mets
If new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen wants to come out of the gates aggressively, this would be a good way to do it. Counting on 33-year-old Yoenis Cespedes to make a timely and productive return from multiple heel surgeries seems even riskier than investing in Pollock, whose signing would allow the Mets to use Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo in the outfield corners. It also would add some right-handed thump to a lineup whose righties slugged .373 last year, fourth lowest in MLB.
They might have their sights set higher this winter -- on Harper and/or Machado -- but Pollock would make sense as well for a club that ranked 23rd in the Majors in outfield WAR last year, according to FanGraphs. Even if Philly is unable to land Harper, it could upgrade significantly by signing Pollock, pushing Odubel Herrera to a corner to join Nick Williams and others. That would move hard-hitting but defensively challenged Rhys Hoskins to first base, while perhaps trading Carlos Santana.
This likely depends on the direction the Mariners take this offseason, with early reports indicating they may look to initiate a rebuild. If, however, the ever-aggressive Jerry Dipoto chooses to take his best shot at ending baseball's longest postseason drought in 2019, Pollock would be a sensible addition. Going that route would allow Seattle to shift Dee Gordon back to second base, and 36-year-old Robinson Cano to first base and/or designated hitter. The Mariners haven't had a center fielder contribute a season of at least 3 WAR since Franklin Gutierrez in 2009.