The Dodgers have finally decided to spend, though not on either of the two top free agents in this year’s class.
Los Angeles decided to address their center field problem by signing A.J. Pollock on a four-year, $55 million deal, plus a $10 million player option for a fifth year. If Pollock declines that option, the Dodgers must buy out his fifth year for $5 million. He can also opt out after three years if he meets a certain threshold of plate appearances. Since he declined the Diamondbacks’ qualifying offer, he will also cost the Dodgers a draft pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money. The Diamondbacks will receive a compensation pick in the first sandwich round, which adds up to quite a few high picks and their associated draft pool money that they will have in the draft.
This is pretty simple: The Dodgers had a need in center field and decided to spend money to fill that need. Joc Pederson should only be playing center field on an emergency basis, and he remains a platoon-player since he can’t hit lefties (he has a paltry career line of .181/.266/.317).
Top prospect Alex Verdugo does not have the range for the position. One would think that a first baseman in center field would be a disaster, but Cody Bellinger was surprisingly passable there! Still, I would not bet on that continuing since he is much better off at first.
Despite Harper having played center field in 63 games last season, he is also not someone you want playing there everyday, so even if the Dodgers decided to sign him instead of Pollock, they still would have had a hole in center field.
A.J. Pollock was a top-five player in the NL in 2015 thanks to elite defense, great baserunning, and a very good bat, but we will probably never see that Pollock again.
The good news for Dodgers fans is that Pollock is still quite good. He has turned a bit into a low OBP, high SLG guy, with a line of .257/.316/.484 in 2018. If he can keep that up with the Dodgers, that combined with his center field defense and baserunning will put them in good shape, though I am concerned that his strikeout rate went up almost 50 percent last year compared to the year before. Steamer projects him at over 2 WAR for 2019 in 122 games played.
That “122 games played” might be the rub for Dodgers fans, but as Jeff Sullivan pointed out at FanGraphs, he only ever misses time due to broken bones, not “constant strains and tears.” He makes a fair point, but I still think it is fair to be concerned with somebody who breaks bones that often, even if it does seem like bad luck.
It is worth pointing out that Matthew Trueblood published an interesting analysis of Pollock at Baseball Prospectus. He discovered that Pollock might be the best hitter in baseball against good pitchers. Granted that there are sample size issues here, and he admits to it, but it makes me wonder if the Dodgers have stronger evidence that this might be a real skill. After all, they do have information not available to the public, and the means to develop a model that can reliably project specific match-ups.
Some might question this signing after trading away Yasiel Puig, but it is hard to argue that Pollock is not an upgrade, even if Puig could play center field everyday. He is definitely the better hitter, but he lacks Pollock’s center field defense and baserunning. Those who are still a little too stuck on value might argue that it would have been better to commit to Puig’s salary of $7.5 million in his contract year instead of committing $60 million to Pollock. There are multiple problems with that argument.
First of all, the Dodgers would again be without a viable everyday center fielder, costing them significant runs on the defensive side. Then they would have the same problem a year from now, only with Pollock off the market. Aaron Hicks will be a free agent, but he also has injury issues, and if he has anything close to the season he had in 2018, he will cost way more money than Pollock, especially since he is two years younger. There will be no other good free agent options for center field.
Another problem with criticizing the value of Puig over Pollock is that the Dodgers should not be caring about value. Their recent salary dump in their trade involving Puig was more about staying under the luxury tax, which is also silly of them. They are an elite team with back-to-back World Series losses, and they happen to be one of the highest revenue teams in the sport. They should be paying whatever it takes to add wins and make the team better. That doesn’t mean spend recklessly, of course. But committing $60 million to a player that fills an important need and can be expected to fill that need for at least the next two or three seasons is not reckless at all. It is actually quite smart.
Perhaps it is less likely that it will happen, but the Dodgers are still in a position where they can add Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto. For example, they can trade Verdugo in a deal for Realmuto, and include Russell Martin or Austin Barnes to address the catcher logjam. The Dodgers can then sign Bryce Harper to take Verdugo’s place in the outfield.
I would not criticize this signing even at double the salary. Again, the Dodgers need wins, not cost efficiency. They are not in a position where they need to worry much about $/WAR or opportunity cost.
Don’t let the owners fool you. The Dodgers have done a good job this offseason and are in shape to be the class of the NL again. If they can pull off the moves described above, they will be World Series favorites.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.