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The Bard's Take: Should the Diamondbacks Extend Pollock?

The Diamondbacks have a second star on their team who is approaching his first year of arbitration. Should they lock him up, or should they take the year-to-year approach?

The Diamondbacks are a blessed organization. Not only do they have Paul Goldschmidt manning first base for them, but they have still-underappreciated A.J. Pollock in center field as well. Pollock entered today with 5.3 fWAR, good for 6th in the NL. His 128 wRC+ ranks him 14th. Baseball-Reference likes Pollock even more, ranking him 3rd in the NL by bWAR among position players, behind only Bryce Harper and teammate Paul Goldschmidt. All of this is in spite of the fact that he has been underwhelming in September, batting only .224 with only 3 walks in 55 plate appearances in the first 16 days of the month.

Yes, A.J. Pollock has picked up in 2016, right where he left off before injury in 2015. The sample size is now large enough to say that A.J. Pollock is indeed a legitimate .300 hitter with moderate pop, great base running, and elite defense in center field. His hot streak in the early going in 2014 was not a fluke after all. This extended breakout performance has caught the attention of the Diamondbacks front office. Pollock will be eligible for arbitration for the first time once 2016 rolls around. Also of note is that, due to an injury suffered back in 2010 that essentially cost Pollock an entire season, Pollock's 2016 season will be his age 28 season.

For over a month now, Dave Stewart and company have made it known that they are interested in locking up both Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock long-term. Goldschmidt is already signed through 2019, so any extension given to him will be a franchise-defining one. While initial reports made it seem like an extension for Goldschmidt was never in doubt, more recent reports have suggested that an extension for the slugging first baseman might take some considerable time, perhaps even another season to work out. On the other hand, Pollock, through his representatives, has made it quite clear that he is interested in signing a contract that would cover his arbitration years and possibly beyond.

As shoewizard pointed out a while back in his editorial, there are a number of reasons to consider not signing Pollock to an extension, opting instead to simply go year-to-year with him. This would allow the Diamondbacks to cut ties with the center fielder the moment his production started to slip. As arbitration will already cover his age 28-30 seasons, the most likely point for significant slip in performance would come in Pollock's post-arbitration years, the ones destined to be the most expensive - by far. Going year-to-year n Pollock would allow the team to maximize the value extracted from him. In the final year, he could even be tabbed with a qualifying offer (assuming that system is still in place), which would give the Diamondbacks either one extra year of control at a reasonable rate, or a compensation round draft pick.

Baseball contracts are not signed in a vacuum however. This coming winter, the Diamondbacks will again be pushing hard for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The market, while flush with good pitching, does not look to favour the Diamondbacks in terms of turning that goal into a reality. Paul Goldschmidt may indeed need another season of play before real extension negotiations can be entered into. The team has been developing something of an image/credibility problem. All these things make the likelihood of Pollock being handed an extension even more likely. Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. It's not like they are looking to sign an aging slugger in the twilight of his years. They are looking to give a contract to a toolsy player with multiple elite tools who is entering the prime of his career. The team needs to make a strong offseason signing in order to have something to sell to the fan base. That could be signing Kenta Maeda out of the NPB. Or, it could be signing A.J. Pollock to a nice 5-year deal, solidifying through at least 2019, the offensive core of the team in Goldschmidt and Pollock. Of all the PR options available, signing Pollock to an extension is probably the easiest to achieve, and is almost certain to be the cheapest option. It woun't even be close.

Pollock's situation is somewhat unique given his performance level at a premium position, versus his age and years of service. Michael Brantley is probably a "best fit" comparison, though there are still significant differences between Brantley and Pollock. After the 2013 season, Brantley signed a 4-year/$25 million extension. This bought out his arbitration years and one free agency season. Additionally the Cleveland Indians hold an $11 million fifth season option with a $1 million buyout.

The first year of that contract, 2014, Brantley took the next step and had a breakout season, slightly out-performing what Pollock has done in 2015. The key difference is, his breakout came after the contract was already in place. For Pollock, the breakout season is coming at just the right time to help his negotiations. Brantley's contract would seem to be the baseline for a Pollock extension. Given the rapidly rising salaries and the rising level for a qualifying offer, Pollock can likely demand a good deal more.

A four-year deal will keep Pollock in Sedona red through his age 31 season. It seems unlikely his agent would want to include a fifth year, unless it was at a very high value, as at age 31, going on 32, Pollock would still be in line for one final major contract if he is still going strong. At age 32 going on 33, getting more than a two-year deal becomes much more difficult. A four-year deal would still allow the Diamondbacks to play things somewhat conservative while also giving Pollock the extension he is after. Even if Pollock begins to decline in only two years, that only leaves two years left on the deal, at least one of which (if not both) should still be at least league average if not better. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples to point to that would indicate that Pollock is likely to be able to remain above average for the entirety of a four-year deal. If the Diamondbacks feel that there is even a halfway decent chance of this happening, then an extension actually makes a ton of sense. A second (much less a third) season of this level of performance would rapidly inflate Pollock's arbitration-dictated salaries into rare territory - the sort reserved for players on the covers of video games.

This is why I am beginning to lean much more heavily towards embracing the notion of offering an extension to Pollock. A 4-year/$36 million contract with an option 5th year at $18 million (with a $2 million buyout) would bring the total guarantee on an extension up to $38 million over four years. It might seem a bit steep, given that three of those years are arbitration years, but it seems entirely possible, and even likely, that Pollock could obtain as much as $20 million through arbitration alone. That brings the question of extending Pollock down to a simple one. Does the team feel that Pollock will be worth paying $16 million or more to during his age 31 season? If the answer to that question is yes, then offering Pollock should indeed be a chief priority this winter. Given that a simple qualifying offer will be well in excess of $18 million by 2019, Pollock won't even need to be among the league's best to rate that last $16 million. This would also have Pollock's contract expiring at the same time as Goldschmidt's current deal, making sure to keep Pollock around for the "contention window" of 2017-19.

Of course, Pollock's people may be looking for more than this. If so, the question remains the same, the final number simply goes up. It would seem that any sort of deal where the Diamondbacks are able to lock up Pollock for less than 4 years/$40 million would be a no-brainer to accept. Anything beyond that, and the financial flexibility of the franchise needs to be weighed heavily against the positive ripple-effect signing Pollock to an extension will bring.