A.J. Pollock and the search for defensive strength up the middle

For a while now, people have been arguing that if the Mets are to be built around pitching, they should have a strong defense up the middle. Meanwhile, the powers that be haven’t exactly subscribed to this idea. Playing guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores in the middle infield didn’t lead to Gold Gloves and their one star defensive player in the middle, Juan Lagares, couldn’t stay healthy. And it’s not like the catchers wowed people with their defensive work, either.

Many blamed Sandy Alderson for this lack of emphasis on defense. But Alderson’s gone and what do we see? With Wilson Ramos, they’ve got a guy who’s more known for his offense than his defense. At second base they’ve got Robinson Cano, who has sure hands and a strong arm but who in his last full season put up a 0 DRS and a 0.1 UZR and who will be 36 in 2019. At shortstop, they hope Amed Rosario will continue to make strides defensively. The new GM was extremely reluctant to deal Rosario, despite the fact he put up a (-16) DRS and a (-5.2) UZR last year.

Which brings us to center field. Which reminds me – who’s going to play CF for the 2019 Mets? Maybe this will be the year that Lagares puts it all together. Or perhaps they convert Jeff McNeil to an outfielder and play Brandon Nimmo in the middle. Or maybe the rumors of a deal with A.J. Pollock come true and he plays center for 140 or so games.

Pollock has visions of a big contract floating in his head. Which would be understandable if he had played in at least 115 games more than once in the last five seasons. The one time he did play a full season, back in 2015, he appeared in 157 games and put up a 6.8 fWAR. It would be terrific to see that type of production for the Mets, especially since he had a +14 DRS and a 9.7 UZR in CF that season. Unfortunately, in the three years since that monster season, Pollock has combined for 237 games and a 5.2 fWAR.

Two years ago, there was a CF available in free agency who was dogged with questions about his ability to stay healthy. The Cardinals handed him a big deal and Dexter Fowler has played 118 and 90 games in 2017 and 2018, respectively. St. Louis would be thrilled to be rid of the 3/$49.5 million he has left to go on his contract.

Last year Lorenzo Cain was the big CF prize available in free agency. He didn’t have quite the checkered injury history that Fowler did, having played 155 games in his last year with the Royals. He ended up signing a similar deal to Fowler, as he got 5/$80 from the Brewers. Cain appeared in 141 games and put up a 5.7 fWAR last year. You may be shocked to hear this, but the Brewers made the playoffs last year while the Cardinals did not.

Many stumped for the Mets to get Cain last offseason. And in 2018 he justified that faith, as his numbers included a career-best +20 DRS at age 32. Still, the question remains if he’ll be able to be a plus defender in the middle as he ages. Since 2002, there have been only 36 seasons by 19 different players where a guy age 33 or above qualified for the FanGraphs leaderboards in center field. And not one of those seasons did a player record a +10 DRS, much less a +20. Defense peaks much younger than offense and very few players can handle the demands of playing center field full time in their mid-30s and virtually no one excels at it.

Maybe Cain breaks the mold.

Pollock will be entering his age 31 season in 2019. He’s been an asset defensively when healthy. But as he goes deeper into his 30s, he has to hope to remain healthy and hope that his defense doesn’t go into a rapid decline. It seems a shaky bet to make, especially at the rumored $15 million per year that he’s seeking.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like Pollock is a front-burner issue for the Mets right now. It would be fine to revisit the issue in late January, if Pollock is still on the board and willing to come down quite a bit from his current salary demands. A Ramos-like contract, 2/$19 with a club option, would make him an interesting get. But a five-year contract should be an automatic deal killer.

21 comments for “A.J. Pollock and the search for defensive strength up the middle

  1. December 20, 2018 at 11:09 am

    He’ll get at least a three year deal worth 45 mil and I’d pass on him. Sandy really screwed the pooch not signing Cain.

  2. Raww
    December 20, 2018 at 11:40 am

    I don’t think we can afford to see Pollock as a yes-or-no proposition, but rather Pollock-or-who. We’re depending on Lagares for this year, and then we have no centerfielder at all after that. And look at our prospects; our most immediate hope is Ross Adolph, right?

    • December 20, 2018 at 12:12 pm

      Have to think Rajai Davis is above Adolph on the depth chart.

      • Raww
        December 20, 2018 at 12:37 pm

        Yeah, anyone above A-ball is above him on the depth chart. That doesn’t mean Davis, Kaczmarski, Braxton Lee, et al can be named the Mets’ centerfielder. The Mets must acquire a starting centerfielder, either next year (if you think Lagares can stay on the field in 2019) or this year–I can’t imagine there’s any debate on the matter. I don’t know what the free-agent class of centerfielders will look like next off-season; does anybody have that? If we posit that Pollock is not acceptable, we have to identify an alternative. I’m glad Rajai is in the organization, but he is not the answer here.

        • December 20, 2018 at 1:38 pm

          Both Conforto and Nimmo have seen extended action in CF so there’s absolutely a debate if the Mets need to acquire a starting CF.

          • Raww
            December 20, 2018 at 4:45 pm

            It’s been a while since I heard anyone suggesting that Conforto or Nimmo might be a suitable everyday centerfielder, especially now with launch-angle mania maximizing the value of outfield defense. Are you comfortable with either of those guys as your everyday centerfielder? What are their metrics there?

            • December 20, 2018 at 5:21 pm

              Neither one of them are particularly good. But the question over who to play where isn’t answered so simply. There’s a tiny bit of evidence suggesting that both Conforto and Nimmo played better offensively when they weren’t playing in the middle defensively. I don’t believe it’s a large enough sample to make any claims but I’m not going to completely ignore it, either.

              My belief is the Mets would be better with an outfield of Nimmo, Conforto and Harper than they would be with N&C and some defensive whiz to play CF – whether that defensive ace is Lagares or someone with a better track record of health. If you could guarantee me that McNeil would hit like he did last year over a full season, I’d stick him in LF and play Nimmo in CF and Conforto in RF. To me, the debate is where you draw the line. Is a 3-win LF worth playing over a defensive guy in CF who likely tops out at 1.5 fWAR? It seems that’s pretty close to the line to me but that’s merely a guess.

              And on top of that – do you want to spend money on the OF when the hope is that Cespedes comes back in July or August? Or even next year. I don’t – unless it’s someone with the upside of Harper.

              • Raww
                December 20, 2018 at 6:29 pm

                The offensive potential of a Conforto/Nimmo/Harper outfield is something to drool over–that’s for sure. On the other hand…let me use the Pollock option as a point of comparison: a bit less offense, much more defense, and an additional $10m stuffed under the Mets’s mattress. That looks greatly preferable to me. Not that I’d pout if the Mets got Harper…. Now, the Cespedes outfield offense would also be droolworthy, assuming he actually can play for any period of time, and play well. I don’t think we want to concede half the year with a slapped-together outfield; I’m not as happy as you are about throwing McNeil out there for a prolonged time. My thoughts about Rajai as a starting outfielder are summed up by his lifetime defensive WAR of -1.9 and the fact that his OPS+ last year was worse than Jose Reyes’s. As for 2020, the Mets will still have Cespedes, Conforto, and Nimmo, but no Lagares (unless they resign him) or any other natural center fielder. And in 2021, no more Cespedes and still no prospects likely to qualify as a starting MLB center fielder. Without looking at next year’s free-agent class, I think signing Pollock is the most reasonable avenue for improvement.

  3. Metsvibes
    December 20, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    AJ Pollock is not worth 15 mil a year. For 9 ok no more.

  4. Pete from NJ
    December 20, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Is Pollock that much of a tremendous fielder? It’s strange but I really don’t know the guy since we see Arizona six times a year and he must have been injured on many occasions when the Mets play the Diamondbacks.

    Looking up his offensive numbers, as Gus noted just recently his numbers really don’t jump off the page. Another guy with an injury history?

    One year deal on the cheap in February sounds good to me.

  5. Metsense
    December 20, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Pollock and Lagares are fragile. Both have a career Rdrs/yr of +12. When the discussion is defense then Nimmo should not be in the discussion with his -13 career Rdrs/yr in center field. Nimmo is a left fielder who has a career Rdrs/yr of +4. Pollock is the better offense player (duh) with a projected OPS if .768 to Lagares projected OPS of .690, a difference of 78 points. So where does the Mets make up the offense in center field? I think at third base where McNeil with his projected OPS of .793 is 64 points is higher then the projected OPS of Frazier’s .729. Of course Frazier with his career +5 Rdrs/yr is better than McNeil with his -5 Rdrs at second base but he has 1345 innings at third base in the minors. Center field is defensively more important than third base and also this post is about middle defensive. The Mets should start Lagares in center and McNeil at third base and not even consider Pollock because the Mets would not be upgrading their middle defensive defense and unnecessarily spending money that could be spent elsewhere without a long term commitment.

  6. Mike Walczak
    December 20, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    I don’t like the idea of signing Pollock. Too much money to bet on him having an uptick in his performance. He’s like d’Arnaud.

    They will sign or trade for another reliever. I bet the last signing or trade will be for someone we never expected. Who is it ? I don’t know. But just watch. I am predicting another starter.

  7. December 20, 2018 at 7:22 pm

    I’m not camping out on a Return for Ces…and I also don;t believe in Lagares as my Starter, much less a 4th outfielder—not until He hits.

    The sensible option is a Marwyn G Type guy who can be useable if and when Ces Returns….with Nimmo or Conforto in CF, and Lagares as a consistent late inning insertion as needed.

  8. December 20, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Of Course, I’d still like Machado

  9. MattyMets
    December 20, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    Brian – we agree on this one. Unless every othe GM has visions of Jacoby Ellsbury and passes on AJ and he’s suddenly available on a reasonable 2-year deal, I have zero interest.

    And by the way, I’s have loved Cain on a 3-year deal but thought he might get 4. I thought a 5-year deal was nuts. He might have another big year left, but he’s not going to earn that contract. At best, he’ll shift to left field and become a replacement level player for his last few years. At worst, he’ll collect his paychecks from the DL like so many other aging center fielders. I believe center fielders need to be home grown. Anderson was shrewd to lock up Lagares to that contract. No one could have known he’d be injured so often. The Mets would be wise to look for a center fielder in future drafts. The great ones are hard to find but can be franchise cornerstones.

    • December 20, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      They drafted a stud CF. Too bad they traded him for an old guy with an albatross contract.

      • December 20, 2018 at 8:06 pm

        yes

      • Raww
        December 20, 2018 at 10:12 pm

        Gaaahk! My nightmares realized….

  10. December 20, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    Matty, I think the Problem with Lagares is his Game…not his injuries—those are incidental. He’s a guy who has taken no information from almost 2000 plate appearances! I can project health for Lagares—I cannot project Performance

  11. DaMetsman from Washington State
    December 21, 2018 at 6:25 am

    As intriguing Pollock is as an option in CF, the Mets have an excellent centerfielder on their roster already in Lagares, and they have to rebuild his value. Rather than spend huge bucks on the oft injured Pollock, let Lagares play for at least the first three months of the season most every day and see what he does. He showed some improved bat control last April and has speed and a little power. If he does well, he can be signed to an extension or dealt at the deadline. Plenty of teams will want Juan if he stays healthy and excels. A nice 4th OF piece, in addition to Rajai Davis, could be Gerado Parra, who should be a reasonably priced asset and is a left-handed hitter to compliment Lagares. Mets $ would be better spent on a high quality southpaw for the new bullpen. Justin Wilson or Hector Santiago could be worth looking at as free agents. Trade options include Tony Watson, Taylor Rogers, Tim Mayza, Jeff Springs, Ryan Buchter and Andrew Chafin.

    Similar to rebuilding Lagares value, the Metsecutives should try to do the same with Dom Smith, by letting him play 1B against all right-handed pitching for the first three of months of 2019, while letting Peter Alonso get his feet wet against southpaws once they bring him on-board. Cano and Rosario backed up by McNeil up the middle, with a platoon of McNeil and Frazier at 3B. Not having McNeil in the lineup for at least four out of five games will be unfortunate since he is the purest hitter on the team (save Cano in his prime). So, the formula may well be add the lefty in the pen and play the hands we have. There is a little bit of depth at AAA with Dilson Herrera, Guillorme, Nido and Oswalt, but not much else.

    Or what about this deal… Syndergaard, Lagares, Plawecki and a top-100 prospect for Mike Trout. Or would it have to be Thor and Conforto and a prospect? We can dream, can’t we? Trout would be a real crowd pleaser and sell tickets.

  12. TJ
    December 21, 2018 at 8:27 am

    ER –
    It is hard to protect health for Lagares as well – defense is the center of his game, and he goes all out for every ball in his direction. Unfortunately, this has led to a series of injuries. He is entering that age range where the defense starts to decline, due both to natural aging and an accumulation of injuries. Offensively, he has struggled to lay off non-strikes, especially the breaking stuff away when down in the count. This could be the most difficult hit skill to master, and has killed countless MLB careers.

    Pollock-wise, there are many strong opinions against – cost, injury history, crowding of the OF. All are good points, but the Mets still need to be in the mix for him until either he signs elsewhere or they fill the need elsewhere. They really need a #2 hitter vs. LHP, and when healthy he fits that role quite well. His value is the big question – he is not worth Cain money but he is worth more than Ramos money based on the marketplace.

    The bullpen and pitching depth are still priorities in my opinion, and I am a little disappointed that guys are coming off the board and we don’t seem to hear the Mets mentioned at all. Minor from Texas would be a nice get given his ability to start or be a bullpen piece. The Mets absolutely have plenty of money to spend on the pen and another quality bat. Pollock will likely wind up with a deal similar to McCutchen, which would not be a “great” signing when coupled with losing a draft pick, but it would certainly make sense for a big market team with a $170s million payroll going for a division title in 2019 and 2020.

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