AJ Pollock’s Contract Increases White Sox’ Outfield Need

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The 2022 season hasn’t gone at all as the White Sox hoped, but they nevertheless find themselves within striking distance of the AL Central lead, thanks largely to the underwhelming composition of the division as a whole. This comes despite designating fifth starter Dallas Keuchel for assignment after eight starts, despite receiving no production at all from their catchers and despite another injury-ravaged season from Eloy Jimenez (among many other issues).

Some of the White Sox’ struggles weren’t exactly impossible to forecast. Keuchel’s 2021 season was substandard, to say the least, for instance. The Sox were thin on depth behind their Opening Day rotation options, and to the front office’s credit, they struck the absolute jackpot in signing Johnny Cueto to a minor league deal. (Where would they be without his 74 innings of 2.80 ERA ball?)

Not every patchwork option has played out quite so nicely, however. Relying on Leury Garcia and Josh Harrison to hold down second base seemed questionable, at best, and the results are worse than most could’ve imagined. There was no reason to expect Garcia to suddenly become one of the absolute worst hitters in the Majors, but he’s at .205/.232/.262, and the resulting 39 wRC+ (61% worse than league-average) is third-worst in MLB (min. 200 plate appearances). Harrison is better utilized as a utility player, but Garcia’s struggles have increased his role. In Harrison’s defense, his .260/.339/.420 slash against lefties is quite good, and with a better platoon partner he’d be a solid part-time piece. His .223/.293/.350 slash against fellow righties, however, is obviously problematic.

Still, the greatest area of need on this team isn’t second base at the moment, but rather in the corner outfield, where the team’s solution to an offseason need appeared quite sound at the time. When the Sox flipped embattled reliever Craig Kimbrel to the Dodgers in exchange for outfielder AJ Pollock, it looked as though they’d killed two birds with one stone. Jettisoning Kimbrel following last year’s struggles was a clear priority for the South Siders, and they did so by acquiring a veteran who’d posted a .272/.330/.499 batting line over the past half decade — including an even better .290/.342/.547 slash in his final two seasons with the Dodgers. The trade even saved the White Sox a million dollars; it was hard to find fault with the deal.

Unfortunately, we’ve reached the “even the best laid plans” cliche territory with how that swap has worked out. Pollock missed 10 days with a hamstring strain early in the season and, when healthy, has floundered through the worst season of his 11-year Major League career. In 272 plate appearances, he’s batting just .227/.268/.333 with career-lows in walk rate (5.1%) and hard-hit rate (37.7%). Pollock has already tied a career-worst with 14 infield flies. A whopping 18.2% of the fly-balls he’s hit this season have been classified as infield flies, effectively rendering them automatic outs.

Beyond the glut of pop-ups and dearth of walks, Pollock’s sprint speed has dropped in 2022 — perhaps not an unexpected result for a 34-year-old outfielder who has now thrice been on the injured list with hamstring strains dating back to Opening Day 2021. Statcast measures Pollocks’ average sprint speed at 27.5 feet per second — down from the 28.1 ft/sec he posted in the four seasons prior. It’s not a massive dip, but for a player who derives value from his wheels. Pollock is hitting just .193 on grounders this year — his worst mark since 2017. From 2018-21, he batted no worse than .243 on grounders in a single season and hit .276 on grounders overall. That may not be solely attributable to the dip in his sprint speed, but losing that extra step can’t help his cause.

For all of Pollock’s struggles, however, there’s another reason the Sox need to find an alternative in the outfield: his contract. Considering this year’s performance, it should be a given that Pollock will exercise the $10MM player option on his contract. That’s already onerous enough, but Pollock can boost the value of that option even further, tacking on an additional million dollars for reaching each of 400, 450, 500, 550 and 600 plate appearances this season. He’s at 272 plate appearances right now, so he’s surely not going to reach the top thresholds of that bonus structure, but he could certainly reach 400 or perhaps even 450 plate appearances and tack on another $1-2MM to that option’s value.

There’s no escaping that option for the White Sox, either, barring an unlikely salary dump. Because it’s a player option, the base value is considered guaranteed money. Just as the Padres can’t simply release Eric Hosmer and be free of the $39MM he’s owed after the opt-out clause he has at the end of the current season, the ChiSox can’t cut Pollock and avoid the $10MM he’s promised for next season. If another team were to claim him on waivers, that team would assume responsibility of that player option, but Pollock’s struggles would lead to him going unclaimed.

Beyond that, there’s good reason for the Sox to actually hang onto Pollock — this season’s struggles notwithstanding. While his overall productivity has been poor, Pollock has hit .274/.297/.532 against lefties. Even though just 64 of his 272 plate appearances have come versus southpaws, all four of his homers and four of his 13 doubles have come when holding the platoon advantage. Pollock has crushed lefties throughout his career (.285/.335/.522), so it’s not a surprise to see that trend continue, even as his fate against right-handed opponents has taken a tumble.

The Sox might have been hopeful that Gavin Sheets could serve as a left-handed-hitting corner outfield complement if needed, but he’s hitting just .229/.296/.388 against righties this season. And, as a 6’5″, 230-pound first baseman whose first professional appearance in the outfield was only last season, Sheets has predictably turned in poor defensive marks in 276 innings (-5 Defensive Runs Saved, -4.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, -3 Outs Above Average).

The trade market for outfielders isn’t as robust as it has been in seasons past, but there are still some solid lefty-swinging options who could pair well with Pollock to help boost the ChiSox’ fortunes against righties. Andrew Benintendi is the most talked-about member of the bunch, but Cincinnati’s Tyler Naquin is another above-average hitter against righties whose $4MM salary is more affordable than Benintendi’s $8.5MM mark. Arizona’s David Peralta, Baltimore’s Anthony Santander and Washington’s Yadiel Hernandez are all options as well, though the Orioles’ recent winning streak might dissuade them from moving controllable pieces like Santander and Hernandez may not be deemed a big enough upgrade over Sheets.

Whatever names the Sox decide to target, salary figures to be a part of the equation. Chicago’s payroll is already at a franchise-record $194MM, and they already have a hefty $117MM of guaranteed salary on the books in 2023. That doesn’t include Pollock’s player option or the no-brainer decision to pick up Tim Anderson’s $12.5MM club option — nor does it include arbitration raises for key players like Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech (among others) or a potential deal to bring back stalwart first baseman Jose Abreu, who’ll be a free agent at season’s end.

Given those forthcoming financial obligations and a farm system that’s regarded as one of the worst in the league (if not the worst), the White Sox aren’t likely to factor prominently into the Juan Soto bidding. However, a short-term, lefty-hitting corner outfielder to pair with righties Pollock, Jimenez, Luis RobertAndrew Vaughn and Adam Engel would still be useful for a White Sox team that carries an underwhelming .250/.303/.368 batting line against right-handed pitching this season.

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