Starting pitcher Patrick Corbin and center fielder A.J. Pollock are slated to join a staggering list of names during the 2018-2019 offseason in what could be one of the best free agent classes of all time. Before the 2018 season began, both men came up in conversation discussing that group after names such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrew Miller. While it is unlikely that either Pollock or Corbin will approach the earning power of Harper, Machado, or Kershaw, both men are currently increasing their potential earnings with strong performances to begin the 2018 season.
This benefits the Arizona Diamondbacks, their current team, in more ways than one. The best case scenario, from a fan’s perspective, is that both players continue this performance through the 2018 season leading the D’backs to a deep Postseason run. However, if things turn south quickly for the team, one or both players could be dealt during the season to a contender for a respectable return. Of course, Arizona General Manager Mike Hazen could elect to keep both men on the roster for the entirety of the 2018 season and extend qualifying offers to each at its conclusion. That would entitle Arizona to draft pick compensation should either player sign with another team in free agency provided certain stipulations are met.
Prior to the start of this season, I briefly discussed Patrick Corbin’s development while focusing on the starting rotations’ roadmap to success as a unit. I noted that increased usage of his slider at the expense of lesser offerings combined with the install of the humidor at Chase Field would make him a more dominant pitcher. Admittedly, I did not anticipate the start we have witnessed from him this season. In 40 innings pitched over six starts, he is among the National League leaders in fWAR and bWAR and is jockeying with two-time reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to lead the Senior Circuit in strikeouts. That dominance was on full display April 17th in Phoenix when he took a no hitter into the 8th inning with two outs against the San Fransisco Giants, ultimately ended on a check swing infield single from Brandon Belt.
Now that the 2018 season has begun, Sean Testerman, Jeff Sullivan, and Jeff Wiser have analyzed Corbin’s torrid start, and there is hope among D’backs fans he can continue it throughout the season. Corbin has increased the velocity variation on his slider and essentially turned it into three different looks of the same pitch. Certain resources are listing one of the offerings as a curveball which is basically a slower version of his slider with more dramatic vertical movement. It sits around 72 MPH, and he has paired it with an 82 MPH slider he can throw with less movement to find the strikezone, and his typical whipeout variant that finishes around the back foot of a right handed hitter. The slider and “slurveball” have allowed his fastball to play up because opposing hitters need to account for more offerings from him. Improved command and better location of that fastball is keeping it off of the plate, not allowing hitters to do as much damage against it, and taking Corbin to sustained dominance we have not seen from him since 2013 when he was an All Star.
When completely healthy playing at 100%, A.J. Pollock has been one of the elite center fielders in Major League Baseball. The only problem is that he has only played over 130 games in a season twice in six campaigns with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was an All Star and earned MVP votes when he played in 157 games in 2015 finishing around seven wins above replacement depending on your flavor of metric. Pollock has had seasons shortened because of a fractured hand when hit by a pitch in 2014, a broken right elbow on the dawn of the 2016 regular season, along with groin injuries at the end of 2016 and the first half of the 2017 season.
On the field he can hardly do anything wrong. Pollock ranks in the top 15 in stolen base percentage since 2012 among players with at least 75 stolen bases. He won a gold glove in 2015 with fourteen defensive runs saved, and was roughly 30% better than the league average batter measured by OPS+ and wRC+ in 2014 and 2015. Pollock has been red hot at the start of the 2018 season with six home runs, six stolen bases, and picked up his 21st RBI on Saturday. Park adjusted metrics are still being calibrated to the newly installed humidor as the season progresses, but before Saturday’s contest he owned a 156 wRC+ and 149 OPS+. His career high figure for home runs in a season is the 20 he hit in 2015, so he is currently on pace to exceed that. However, his 26% strikeout rate and 43.9% hard contact rate are well above career norms, so it remains to be seen how long he can sustain this going forward. So far so good.
Impending Free Agency
Both players will become free agents at the conclusion of the 2018 season provided that Arizona does not work out an extension with either man. Their strong starts this year not only benefits their future earning power, but also the team they currently play for. The Diamondbacks are off to one of their best starts in franchise history coming off their 9th consecutive series win to open the season. That has only been accomplished twice in the history of Major League Baseball, in 2001 by the Seattle Mariners and 1907 by the Chicago Cubs. Pollock and Cobin have been key contributors to that start.
The Diamondbacks’ chances of re-signing one or both of those players when they hit free agency is narrow. Arizona will still owe $114.5 million to Zack Greinke over the life of his contract. Yasmany Tomas will likely exercise $32.5 million in a player option to cover his 2019 and 2020 salaries because no team will offer him near that much money in the open market. The ownership group will have to weigh the value of the face of the franchise, Paul Goldschmidt, as he approaches his own free agency. And if you thought last year had a daunting amount of players eligible for salary increases through arbitration, brace yourselves because thirteen will be pitching their case next time around. Those factors put constraints on a payroll that is already stretched beyond what some of us thought it would be at the start of this season, but ownership does reserve the right to push the issue further in an effort to extend the contention window.
All the while Corbin and Pollock are making a sales pitch to the entire league as to why they deserve their own multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts. Lorenzo Cain, a center fielder comparable in age and ability to Pollock, inked a five year $80 million dollar contract of his own with the Milwaukee Brewers in a depressed free agent market this past winter. That is a likely starting point for Pollock and his agency this winter. For Corbin, a valid comparable would be Alex Cobb who signed with the Baltimore Orioles for four years and $57 million, again in a market where teams were spending less on free agents in their 30’s.
What is similar among these players? Cobb and Cain were both extended qualifying offers by their former teams, the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals, respectively. Arizona will have the option to do the same with Pollock and Corbin should they remain with the team for the entirety of the 2018 season. The league determines the dollar amount for qualifying offers each season based on the mean salary of the league’s 125 highest paid players. For Cain and Cobb last season, that meant their former teams made them an offer for one year at $17.4 million dollars. Both men declined their qualifying offers, and that entitled the Royals and Rays to draft pick compensation from the Brewers and Orioles.
The placement of the compensatory pick a given team receives after losing a player through free agency who declines a qualifying offer is dependent on several factors. One of those depends on whether the team which lost the player is a revenue sharing recipient or not, and if that team exceeded the luxury tax threshold. As you can surely guess, the Diamondbacks are historically revenue sharing recipients and are not in any real danger of exceeding the luxury tax threshold.
In this hypothetical scenario I have created for the Diamondbacks, the placement of their would be compensatory picks depends on how much Pollock and Corbin sign for in free agency. If either man is extended a qualifying offer by Arizona, declines, and signs with another team in free agency for more than $50 million dollars, Arizona would receive a compensatory pick between the first round and Competitive Balance Round A of the 2019 MLB Amateur Draft. If they sign for less than $50 million dollars, Arizona would receive a compensatory pick between the second round and Competitive Balance Round B.
Hopefully you can see where I am going with this. Before the season began, and after the bizarre free agent market last winter, I probably would not have advised for the Diamondbacks to extend a one year qualifying offer around $17.4 million to either Pollock or Corbin. Pollock because his years in Arizona have been marred by injury, and Corbin because he would be a pitcher entering his thirties with an inconsistent track record (mostly a result of Tommy John Surgery). Prior to the start of the 2018 season, it was a 50-50 shot that Arizona could retain one or both of those players at a more friendly average annual value than $17.4 million per year. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, and this is my argument for this entire article, both men have completely flipped that script on its head through a strong start to the season.
If A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin both continue this performance throughout the 2018 season, they will likely command a salary in free agency north of that $50 million dollar sweet spot that would entitle the Diamondbacks to a compensatory pick between the first round and Competitive Balance Round A. This is valuable to an Arizona franchise which currently has one of the weaker farm systems in the league. Two additional sub first round picks could be used to quickly replenish a farm system thin on impact prospects. Three lottery tickets have a higher chance to hit the jackpot than one.
Some of you by now are reasonably pondering the possibility of both Corbin and Pollock accepting these hypothetical qualifying offers and thus expanding the Diamondbacks payroll even further by roughly $36 million dollars in a single season for just two players. For that I would refer you back to the general partners’ discretion to expand payroll to widen the contention window. Mike Hazen would still be able to trade either player during the 2019 season which would also fetch a few prospects from an interested trade partner. However, the Diamondbacks could not repeat the qualifying offer process with Pollock and Corbin at the conclusion of the 2019 season. Players can only be extended a qualifying offer once in their career.
Whatever the outcome is, I am truly pleased to see both men put the Diamondbacks in this situation. It has led to the best start in franchise history. Pollock and Corbin could be in line for significant paydays in their future. If they keep it up, dare I fathom that they lead the Diamondbacks on a deep Postseason run? Alternatively, should Arizona begin to falter mid-season Hazen will have to decide if it is more beneficial to the long term outlook of his ball club to shop both players on the trade market. Surely the interest would be there from a contender who could send a nice return back our way. Unexpected hot starts from both have put the Diamondbacks in a favorable position.
But do not let me tell you how to feel. I know you will not. Please, discuss in the comments!