When A.J. Pollock broke his elbow two days before Opening Day, the Diamondbacks were a trendy sleeper pick for the NL West. They’d taken a roughly .500 team and splashed $206 million on Zack Greinke, then traded three young players, including no. 1 pick Dansby Swanson, for Shelby Miller, a 25-year-old coming off a 205.1-inning season with a 126 ERA+. The Diamondbacks paid handsomely for two top-notch starting pitchers who, along with a fully healthy Patrick Corbin (the 27-year-old former All-Star lefty who’d returned from Tommy John in July 2015), would make for a playoff-worthy rotation. Meanwhile the defending division champion Dodgers had gone backward, losing Greinke and replacing him with an expensive array of body parts that, if not for pesky medical ethics considerations, could be sewn together to create one healthy, effective pitcher but did little to help in the short term.
Five months later, Pollock returns to the twisted, shattered, overgrown-with-moss wreckage of a season that started out bathed in optimism, but could end in regime change.
Certainly Pollock’s injury undercut Arizona’s playoff ambitions from the start: Losing a player like Pollock, a plus defensive center fielder who hit .315/.367/.498 last season, would have hurt any team in baseball. But Greinke and Corbin are having rough years, and Miller’s 7.14 ERA got him banished to Triple-A (at least for now; at this rate he’ll be exiled to the Chateau d’If by season’s end), and with Swanson now on Atlanta’s big league roster, that trade looks worse every day. Between those big, attention-grabbing problems and a series of smaller but annoying ones — shortstop Nick Ahmed and right fielder David Peralta are both out for the season — Pollock’s return for the next month is a drop in the bucket. The effort required to even salvage a .500 season for this 55–76 team is beyond Pollock’s capacity to give. And it’s not like Pollock is demonstrating his fitness to free-agent suitors or even pumping up his stats for arbitration: The 28-year-old signed a two-year extension before the injury that locks him into a $6.75 million salary for 2017, and he won’t be a free agent for another year after that.
So why come back early from a gruesome and serious injury — and risk reaggravating it — to play out the last 30 games in a lost season? Why not take the full offseason to heal?
When Pollock first got surgery to fix his elbow, the return window stretched from three months to six, so even though the “season-ending” part of the report grabbed headlines back in April, he’s not actually making some ill-considered and self-destructive rush back from surgery; this is well within the range of expected outcomes. For all the deserved shit Arizona’s front-office staff takes, they know better than anyone how futile it would be to risk Pollock’s health by rushing him back, particularly after it came out that the failure of a similar 2010 injury to heal all the way contributed to the broken bone this year. Pollock himself told reporters on Friday that he wanted to rush back, but the team’s training staff forced him to take a more conservative approach. Moreover, because this is a broken bone and not a soft tissue injury, it’s easier to tell with an X-ray whether the bone is healed all the way; you don’t have to go by feel like you would with a torn muscle. If Pollock’s in the lineup, it’s because he and the Diamondbacks are confident that the risk of reinjury is too small to worry about.
But even if that weren’t true, Pollock can help himself a great deal by playing this last month, irrespective of whether it’s too late to help his team. With the Diamondbacks out of the race, this is essentially a free five weeks for Pollock to shake off the rust against MLB pitching. Hitting big league pitching requires such delicate mental and physical adjustments that extended time off can be just as big an impediment as the physical injury that caused it. Pollock was game-ready when he broke his elbow five months ago, and he’ll have a little over a month to face live pitching before resuming a normal offseason routine and coming back ready to go next April. If he hadn’t come back now, Pollock would be going into Opening Day next year 18 months removed from his last meaningful at-bat. You can work out in the cage, or play games in spring training or winter ball, but there’s nothing quite like major league competition, and even a month of big league playing time cuts Pollock’s layoff going into 2017 by two-thirds. He can get his timing back, feel confident in his body, and boost his own morale heading into next season.
Morale is important — inactivity drives baseball players up the wall, which is another thing Pollock mentioned on Friday: If you’re a baseball player, not playing when you’re healthy enough to play just doesn’t feel right.
The next month might be meaningless when it comes to the standings this year, but Pollock can use it to get ready for next season. Since his arm is healthy enough to play, there’s no harm in letting him get his legs back under him.