Sliding headfirst into home plate, Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock fractured the bum elbow he’d been trying to heal all spring after apparently re-injuring it during exhibition play Friday night. You can bet he wasn’t the only one grimacing in agony. You can bet that everyone in the organization, starting from Snake chieftain Tony La Russa and GM Dave Stewart on down, took this pretty hard, especially since you have to expect Pollock's absence will be measured in months, not weeks. And you might already ask if Arizona’s season is over before it even got started.
Pollock’s big breakout season in 2015 was a significant reason why the Snakes thought they were close enough to contention to merit investing a ton of money and talent in a win-now offseason campaign that netted them Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller in the rotation. The cost on paydays and in prospects will be felt for years, and you don’t sign Greinke to be a stretch-drive wallflower.
How big is the impact? ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski had projected Pollock’s value via ZiPS in 2016 over four wins (4.3 WAR), with 50 extra-base hits and a .294/.345/.461 triple-slash stats line. While that might sound conservative, in relative terms, you should note that the only regular center fielders Szymborski projected to be more valuable this season were Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. While that might seem like a heavy bet on Pollock doubling down on his big 2015 season, remember that he put up similarly big numbers in the three months he played in 2014 -- when he lost half a year to a broken right hand, thanks to a a Johnny Cueto fastball inside, muting the breakout by costing him a shot at racking up counting stats.
So the big 2015 season was actually the repeat performance, and with Pollock heading into his age-28 season and still in his prime, expecting more of the same wasn’t just likely, it was the second major pillar on which the Snakes’ offense is supposed to reliably strike from, second only to Paul Goldschmidt. Losing Pollock leaves Arizona with a really short-sequence offense -- how many times can David Peralta drive in Goldschmidt? -- especially with low-OBP guys like Jean Segura and Nick Ahmed already littering the lineup. Now, more than ever, the Diamondbacks will really need to see their $68.5 million investment in Cuban import Yasmany Tomas pay off, but last year’s .707 OPS as a rookie was far from reassuring, and he was in danger of losing playing time to the guy who’s first in line to replace Pollock for the time being.
Where do they go from here? Prospect Socrates Brito -- ranked fourth overall in the organization by ESPN Insider’s Keith Law before the season -- is the obvious choice, given that he’s toolsy and talented with quick hands and good plate coverage. However, he’s also a guy whose batting average is pretty much his only route to a solid OBP, and his power-speed combo in Double-A Mobile last season added up to just nine homers and 20 steals in 26 attempts. He isn’t a burner, but he’s talented enough that, if he adapts, he’s ultimately a more valuable asset and more useful right now than going after a journeyman like Sam Fuld to paper over Pollock’s absence. The D-backs also have journeyman Jason Bourgeois hanging around, but he'd represent no real improvement on Brito after posting a .626 OPS in more than 700 career at-bats.
A quick start from Brito would certainly help fend off fears about last season. But having already dealt top prospect Dansby Swanson to get Miller, Arizona fans might fear an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ sensibility. Pilfering a farm system that already ranks just 24th won’t leave them with much to offer to get anything of value and fill the biggest spot on the roster not manned by Goldschmidt or Greinke.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.