PHOENIX — When the season started, the Diamondbacks were counting on a rookie center fielder to move into the starting lineup and make an impact. One did. That it was A.J. Pollock rather than Adam Eaton was a pleasant surprise — and another testament to their depth.
Eaton was listed on the NL All-Star ballot, a group chosen with the team’s input, but his elbow injury in spring training opened a roster spot for Pollock, who never looked back. Pollock leads National League rookies with 12 stolen bases and is tied for the lead with 28 doubles. His defensive WAR is in the top five of all major league center fielders.
The emergence of Pollock and return to health of Eaton give the D-backs outfield options as they look to an uncertain 2014, with questions surrounding Cody Ross’ recovery time from a fractured hip and the possibility of a trade that would add power. The Diamondbacks ended the season with Pollock, Eaton and Gerardo Parra spending most of the time in the outfield, with Martin Prado and Willie Bloomquist also taking turns in left.
“It will be interesting with our outfield to see how they all they fit,” manager Kirk Gibson said.
It appears safe to say Pollock and Eaton figure in their plans moving forward. Pollock carved out a niche for himself this season by first taking advantage of the opportunity that presented itself and and then making adjustments at the plate as the league got a longer look at him. Gibson has called Pollock the D-backs’ best center fielder.
“I wanted to come into the year and turn some heads and show that I belong up here,” Pollock said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to the big leagues or not, but fortunately I got to come up here.”
Sometimes, that is all it takes.
“I think so. Getting a chance and time. Baseball is big on timing. Some stuff happens, and you have to step up. If you are ready, then you will be good. If you are kind of just the background person, you might get weeded out.”
Pollock was prepared. He had two home runs and six RBIs in his sixth start, a 10-2 victory over the Pirates on April 10, and he had nine doubles in his first 55 at-bats. As opponents began throwing more breaking balls, he adjusted his approach. Like Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock makes extensive use of video to study pitcher tendencies. He is hitting .269 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 439 at-bats. Only three NL rookies have driven in more runs.
“I feel like I’ve kind of learned from some mistakes and smartened up as the year went on and gotten tougher at-bats as the year went on,” Pollock said.
Gibson appears to be a believer.
“He’s an interesting talent for us to evaluate for the future,” Gibson said. “I like the way he works, his openness to try to get better. He’s improved a ton. He’s not looking at learning tomorrow; he’s looking at learning today. He goes and gets the ball. He gets good reads. He moves around well.
“You can see he’s had a lot of improvement at the plate. He’s tinkered with his swing. What he’s done, he’s watched how they’ve pitched him and what he can’t cover, and he’s worked in the cage and talked a lot about how he can handle more pitches. I think he will figure it out and things will come easier. How good he can be, we’ll see about that. But he has good actions.”
Eaton’s season was more frustrating. He missed the first three months with an elbow strain that he suffered in spring training and aggravated late in his first rehab assignment, costing him another month in recovery. In the last two months, he has shown signs of being the top-of-the-order table-setter the D-backs envisioned, with two four-hits games and a three-hit game in a 10-day span of late August. He is hitting .255 with three homers and 22 RBIs.
A disruptive force in the minors with 44 stolen bases last year, he has not been in a position to run as much this season and has only five steals. That number should improve next year.
“Here’s a guy who had a great year in Triple-A (Reno) last year, and we expected him to be ready right out of the get-go, and he wasn’t,” Gibson said. “He comes back late in the season, everybody has been playing, and there’s a lot to catch up. Adam is very critical of himself. He just has to stay focused on the process. He’s doing fine. He wants to be way better. It kills him that he can’t be better.”
It remains to be seen how the D-backs will use Pollock and Eaton, whose arm appears to be back at full strength now, just as doctors told him it would be. Whatever happens, Eaton said he will be more himself in 2014.
“It was a learning process. It was anything but smooth. It was anything but nice,” Eaton said. “Getting hurt right off the bat didn’t help. Once I got back, I was trying to find everything. I just couldn’t find anything. We saw glimpses of it here or there, but it wasn’t anything consistent, and that’s what I pride myself on — being consistent.
“It’s coming around. It’s here or there. It’s been a struggle. It’s been a grind. I don’t believe the type of player I have shown this year is the type of player I am. I think this offseason is going to be a special one for me. It’s going to be better next year.
“I’ve always been determined, but this showing I have had this season is not who I am. It’s going to change.”