When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed outfield A.J. Pollock to a 5-year, $60 million deal prior to the 2019 season, the team knew the risk they were taking. Long lauded as a player with infinite talent, Pollock was meant to take the baseball world by storm during his time roaming center field for the division-rival Arizona Diamondbacks.
The problem was, the time he actually spent on the field was few and far between and the writing should have been on the wall.
Pollock broke out in a big way in 2015, hitting an impressive .315/.367/.498 with 20 home runs, 111 runs scored, 76 RBI, and 36 stolen bases. There is nothing like announcing yourself to the baseball world with a 6.8 fWAR and a 131 wRC+ season. If his proficiency with the bat wasn’t enough, Pollock also got it done in center field for the DBacks, registering 10 defensive runs saved and a UZR/150 of 9.4. That performance earned Pollock an All-Star nod, a Gold Glove award, and a 14th place finish in the National League MVP voting.
But while wheels and a sturdy bat would mark his ascension, the former fell off over the course of the next two seasons. Pollock would play in just 12 games in 2016 due to a broken elbow during a freak accident while sliding into home plate during a spring training game. He would then miss another 99 games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, from a groin injury and a broken thumb respectively. All told, Pollock only made 237 out of a possible 486 appearances over his final three seasons in Arizona.
While the games played were not necessarily promising, Pollock still managed to produce when he saw the field. From 2016-2018, he slashed .261/.323/.473 with a cumulative 5.2 fWAR over that period. That likely played heavily into the Dodgers’ choice when they pursued him prior to the 2019 season and they opted to lean on the side of freak injuries rather than labeling Pollock an injury risk.
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Regardless of the risk that Andrew Friedman took in inking A.J. Pollock, he obviously opted to add some caution into the deal with the now 31-year-old outfielder. The first year of the deal paid Pollock only $1 million in base salary, with another $4 million coming via signing bonus according to Spotrac. That choice turned prophetic, as Pollock ultimately played just 86 games for the Dodgers in 2019, owing to elbow inflammation (in the twice-broken right elbow no less).
When he was on the field in 2019, Pollock rebounded from a slow start to hit .266/.327/.468 with 15 home runs, 48 runs, and 47 RBI. However, his defense lapsed tremendously, with Pollock being worth -10 defensive runs saves and a vastly disappointing -18.9 UZR/150. He would ultimately lose his job in center field and be sequestered to left for the first time since 2014. Things then hit their lowest when Pollock went 0-for-13 in the division series loss to the Washington Nationals, including an NLDS-record 11 strike-outs.
Fast-forward to 2020, the role has likely changed for Pollock, as he’ll be permanently in left field for the Dodgers. He’ll also be forced more into splitting time with Joc Pederson, although Pollock doesn’t have the platoon splits of Pederson. The arrival of Mookie Betts and the everyday presence of Cody Bellinger will limit the availability of playing time in right and center respectively, and the Dodgers will still need to find occasional time for Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor in the outfield grass.
However, there is a certain level of pressure to be sure, for both Pollock and Friedman. Pollock will be guaranteed salaries of $12 million in 2020 (w/ a $3 million signing bonus payout), and then see that rise to $15 million in 2021 (with another $3 million bonus payout). He’ll see one more $3 million bonus payout in 2022, but his average yearly salary in 2022 and 2023 drops to $10 million for his age-34 and 35 seasons.
That may be tall ask for Pollock as he tries to put injuries behind him while playing on the wrong side of most players’ primes. Still, with the shadow of what once was looming, the Dodgers are hoping that A.J. Pollock can return to some semblance of the player they thought they signed prior to 2019.