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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: AJ Pollock

Why not a cheap outfield fallback option in case everything else goes wrong?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Hear me out.

This is far from ideal, but there’s a world in which there’s some sense to be found in considering AJ Pollock as a fallback option for their left field hole. It might be a bottom-10th percentile outcome in terms of how this offseason would ideally be scripted, but it’s always good to have a contingency plan!

Let’s say the Yankees do what it takes to retain Aaron Judge and give him the contract he deserves. There are a still a few ways this offseason can take some unexpected twists and turns. The rumors that have swirled about attempts to trade Aaron Hicks, Josh Donaldson, or Gleyber Torres in an attempt to clear budget space for top-end starting pitching might come to fruition. Hal Steinbrenner, being an MLB owner to the core, may yet remain terrified of the luxury tax — a new Judge contract would likely push them up to $10 million over the CBT line for the second consecutive year, with extra penalties kicking in at $20 million — and there is, unfortunately, a non-zero chance that paying Carlos Rodón or Justin Verlander what they’re worth means that Brian Cashman will be left scraping the bottom of the barrel to fill the aforementioned left field hole.

Alternatively, there’s also a world where they simply don’t find any of the deals on the table worthwhile and fail to clear Hicks, Donaldson, or Torres’ salaries. In that case, the same caveats about ownership’s attitude towards the CBT also apply. Because this is their second consecutive year above the threshold, they’d be taxed 42 percent for every dollar in 2023 salary they spend above $253 million — i.e., give or take $15 million above where they’d likely sit after re-signing Judge. Should that be meaningful? No! But it means that a $15 million salary is effectively a $21 million expenditure, a chilling prospect for most MLB owners. Again, here is a scenario where Cashman is left for no choice but to take his pick of castoffs to supplement the team’s internal options for left field in 2023.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Pollock. To all the above points, this looks poised to be the most bountiful free agent winter for players in quite some time. The first contracts of the offseason have set the market high, and Pollock has one thing going for him in terms of affordability: The White Sox are paying him a $5 million dollar buyout to not play for them next season after he surprisingly declined a $13 million player option last month. He wasn’t a particularly appealing player in 2022, but he’s still not terribly far removed from being a borderline All-Star caliber hitter who posted a 124 OPS+ between 2019 and 2021, including a 132 in the latter two of those years. Players with success like that so recently in the rear-view mirror aren’t so typically available for what Pollock is poised to ask for, particularly in a relatively strong players’ market like this one.

There’s no doubt that Pollock was swinging a worse bat last season. He hit the ball on the ground more, his quality of contact declined by most metrics, his speed declined (naturally; it’s hard to believe he’s already 35, as of today), and he posted his lowest home run total since 2017 despite playing in the second-most games of his career. That total, by that way, was still only 138.

What’s the argument that he isn’t fully washed? Even amid those declines, his batted ball metrics weren’t terrible, but roughly league average. He underperformed his career BABIP by nearly 30 points and ran a wOBA 20 points below his expected wOBA, which was perhaps partially a function of hitting into the now-defunct shift almost 50 percent of the time, with a 30-point drop in wOBA when shifted. He maintained a respectable 12 percent K-BB rate, and his whiff and contact numbers were virtually unchanged from years past.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Guardians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Outs Above Average hasn’t been a fan of the former Gold Glove winner’s defense for several years now, but UZR and Defensive Runs Saves both thought he was still serviceable in left field in 2022. His speed is diminishing but was still in the 60th percentile league-wide, with arm strength just outside the top 20 percent. If the rest of the outfield defensive alignment is Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge, a player of Pollock’s defensive caliber shouldn’t pose any issues.

If there’s a version of 2022 Matt Carpenter to be found next spring, Pollock might be a place to look. Though the White Sox acquired him partially due to his tendency towards reverse platoon splits, he wound up as a lefty-masher, posting a .935 OPS against southpaws along with 11 of his 14 home runs. That’s not to say it’s a reason that he’d be a fit for the Yankees roster, but that there’s a good enough chance he can still produce at a very high level if his matchups and health are managed accordingly.

The Yankees are in a good position to do that. He certainly wouldn’t need to play in left field every day — assuming Hicks is off the roster, some kind of Pollock/Oswaldo Cabrera platoon might be one of your better options, if you’re dedicated to not spending any money, as MLB owners typically are. An offseason that sees Judge back in pinstripes along with Verlander/Rodón and somebody of Andrew Benintendi’s caliber would be simply peachy, but we know better than to expect such “excess” anymore. Free agent outfield fits for the Yankees are relatively few and far between, and short of a trade for Bryan Reynolds, left field seems like the position of need most likely to be delegated to a dart throw. If it comes to that, there are far worse things than taking a shot on Pollock on a reasonable one-year deal.