Dodgers Sign 2015’s Other Massive Breakout

Because of who they are, and because of their extensive resources, the Dodgers have long been linked to Bryce Harper. When Harper’s market didn’t develop quite as expected, the Dodgers seemed a more likely fit. When they cleared some money by means of a large December trade with the Reds, the Dodgers seemed all the more likely a fit. Harper’s market at the moment isn’t entirely clear. We know the Phillies are in there. We don’t know who else is in there, if anyone. The Los Angeles connection has been increasingly easy to draw.

But now, it would seem the Dodgers have officially gone in another direction. Harper was maybe baseball’s best player in 2015, and while he’s been good since then, that season set the expectations awfully high. In a sense, Harper’s been a minor disappointment. Much of the same could be said of A.J. Pollock, who broke out to become a top-ten player in 2015. He hasn’t been quite the same player since. But he is now the newest player on the Dodgers. He’s getting, technically, a $60-million guarantee, spread over five years.

Pollock doesn’t completely close the door on Harper, in theory. The Dodgers could make it work if they wanted. We know they’re sufficiently creative. Yet it looks like the Dodgers are now focused on trying to add J.T. Realmuto. I wouldn’t say their Harper odds have improved. It’s Pollock who’s the man of the hour.

The structure of the contract hasn’t been fully made public, but Pollock will earn $55 million over the next four years. He can opt out after the third year, if he wants. And then there’s a fifth-year player option, worth $10 million. It also comes with a $5-million buyout, meaning Pollock would only pick it up if he doesn’t think he could earn at least $5 million back on the open market. I have no idea what the market will look like that far down the road — maybe there won’t be a market at all! — but the main function of the fifth year is to slightly lower Pollock’s average salary, for tax purposes. If the Dodgers just paid him $55 million over four years, the annual hit would be $13.75 million. At $60 million over five years, the hit drops to $12 million. It’s not much of a difference, but you figure the Dodgers will continue to run high payrolls, so every dollar matters if they’re going to obsess over not clearing the competitive-balance-tax threshold. It doesn’t seem like they should need to obsess over that, but I’m just a guy in an apartment.

Because Pollock declined the Diamondbacks’ qualifying offer, the Dodgers are also giving up more beyond just the salary. For one thing, they’ll be docked half a million dollars the next time around in international bonus money. And there is also a draft-pick penalty. I thought this would cost the Dodgers their second-highest draft pick, which is currently slotted in at No. 31, but that pick is compensation for not signing J.T. Ginn last year, and I’m given to understand those kinds of compensation picks are also protected. Assuming that’s true, the Dodgers are actually out the No. 64 overall pick instead. In terms of valuation, the difference between pick 31 and pick 64 is considered to be millions of dollars.

As for Pollock, and how he fits in LA — he’s 31 years old, and he’s a center fielder who bats from the right side. That was prioritized by the Dodgers, who felt they profiled to be too weak against southpaws. I don’t have a clear understanding of exactly how important it really is to be balanced, but it’s a first-world concern, and the Dodgers are a first-world ballclub. With Pollock handling center, that frees up Cody Bellinger to move around, spending time in the outfield corners. That’s bad news for at least one of Joc Pederson and Alex Verdugo, to say nothing of Andrew Toles. Pederson has been the subject of recent trade rumors, and it does look as if something has to give.

To Pederson’s credit, he’s developed into a plus hitter, and he’s improved his ability to make contact. Yet, compared to Pollock, he’s the inferior defender by a large margin, and he also has to be platooned, given his vulnerability against lefties. In part because of that, Pederson has struggled in higher-leverage plate appearances, so Pollock looks like more of a true regular. Pederson could now be expendable, in a move that would bring back something else. The Dodgers are forever going to churn.

It’s interesting to look at 2018 Pollock vs. breakout 2015 Pollock. Not *that* much has changed, from what we can see. He is, obviously, older, and therefore closer to the end of his career. His sprint speed has dropped a little bit. His exit velocity hasn’t fallen. He’s traded some contact for more balls in the air. Much of the same star skillset remains intact. The biggest problem for Pollock has been staying on the field. He’s averaged 79 games over the past three years, and fans loathe a player perceived as injury-prone.

By the results, absolutely, Pollock has been too injury-prone. That’s one of the ways in which this contract could go off the rails. But if you look at what’s actually happened — in 2016, Pollock missed almost the whole year after fracturing his elbow while sliding. In 2017, he strained his groin, and that might not be a fluke. But then in 2018, he fractured his thumb while diving. If you go back to 2014, pre-breakout, he fractured his hand getting hit by a pitch. In 2010, he missed almost the whole year because of a fractured elbow sustained on a dive. The word “fracture” comes up an awful lot in Pollock’s history, and it’s caused him to spend a lot of time on the sidelines. But Pollock hasn’t been going on the DL with constant strains and tears. It doesn’t seem like he’s got anything chronic. He might’ve just gotten unlucky. He’s already passed his physical with the Dodgers, so they’ve determined he’s worth the investment. I’ll take this injury record over a guy with recurring hamstring issues.

If Pollock can indeed stay healthy, there’s every reason to believe he’s still a comfortably above-average player. He won’t remain a comfortably above-average player forever, but he still moves well and swings well, and the Dodgers have their eyes on what’s right in front of them. They remain versatile in terms of what they can do with their lineup and defense, and now they have some additional excess, which could facilitate a trade for a major-league player, or for prospects. The Dodgers now might not be better than they were before the trade with the Reds, but they have gained in prospects, and unlike Yasiel Puig, Pollock isn’t going into his contract year. This is presumably one of those moves that will be best understood when it’s viewed within the overall offseason context.

The Dodgers could make Bryce Harper happen if they wanted. Even independent of Harper, it’s still unclear to me why staying under the tax threshold is so important for a team with so much steady revenue. But if the Dodgers are going to behave in this way, Pollock is a useful get, provided you think his injuries have been more fluky than chronic. He’s still a quality player when he’s able to play, and now the Dodgers have more expendable chips. It doesn’t at all feel that their offseason’s over.

We hoped you liked reading Dodgers Sign 2015’s Other Massive Breakout by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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dooter
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dooter

Now reportedly 4 years 55 million, Jeff.

Edit: Looks like you included this info in the second paragraph. Sorry for being a narc.