11:32am: The two teams have announced the trade.
It’s a fairly stunning blockbuster involving two high-profile and highly paid veterans. Pollock is earning $10MM this season and is owed at least a $5MM buyout on a $10MM player option for the 2023 season. Kimbrel, meanwhile, is slated to earn $16MM this coming season after the ChiSox picked up a 2022 club option despite a poor performance following the trade that sent him from Chicago’s north side to the south side last summer.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweets that there is no money changing hands in the deal, which means the Dodgers are effectively adding an extra million dollars in financial commitments (assuming Pollock declines his player option at a net $5MM and tests free agency next winter). The Dodgers will also see their luxury ledger tick upward a bit as a result of the trade. Pollock’s contract was a four-year, $55MM deal but counted as five years and $60MM for luxury tax purposes, as the player option on the end of the contract was considered guaranteed money. Thus, the contract carried a $12MM luxury hit. As Matt Gelb of The Athletic recently reported, the new CBA stipulates that a traded contract’s remaining actual dollars will count toward the luxury tax. As such, Kimbrel will now represent a $16MM luxury hit for the Dodgers (rather than the $14.5MM he’d have represented under previous rules).
Setting aside the financial component of the blockbuster swap, the trade fills a need for both teams. The Dodgers’ bullpen was lacking a shutdown option late in the game, and Kimbrel restored his credibility as a dynamic ninth-inning option through the first four months of the 2021 season while closing games for the Cubs. He’ll now join Blake Treinen, Daniel Hudson and young flamethrower Brusdar Graterol at the back of the Los Angeles bullpen.
For much of the 2021 season, Kimbrel looked back to his vintage form. In 36 2/3 innings with the Cubs, the 33-year-old righty (34 in May) posted a microscopic 0.49 ERA while racking up 23 saves and 46.7% of his opponents against a 9.4% walk rate. Kimbrel deservingly made the All-Star team, and the three-year, $43MM contract he’d signed in 2019 went from albatross to trade asset in a matter of months. The White Sox, looking to push what was already a clear division winner over the hump, traded injured second baseman Nick Madrigal and right-hander Codi Heuer to the Cubs in a crosstown blockbuster.
Kimbrel pitched a shutdown inning in each of his first two appearances with the Sox, and though he was rocked for three runs in his third outing, it looked like a blip on the radar when he bounced back with three more scoreless appearances thereafter. However, the right-hander’s struggles increased in the coming weeks as reports that Kimbrel was uncomfortable pitching in a setup capacity behind Sox closer Liam Hendriks gained prominence. Ultimately, Kimbrel posted an ugly 5.09 ERA in 23 regular season frames with the Sox before being trounced for another three runs (two earned) in two ALDS innings.
Whether Kimbrel’s struggles were indeed tied to the role in which he was pitching or whether that was a more narrative-driven explanation, the Dodgers clearly feel confident that he can return to the high level of performance he displayed with the Cubs last year. If that’s indeed the case, a bullpen that recently lost Kenley Jansen to the Braves (for this same $16MM price tag) will prove one of the most formidable in the sport.
The trade of Pollock also opens up playing time in the outfield for Chris Taylor, who’d previously been deemed the team’s primary second baseman. With Pollock and left-handed-hitting Matt Beaty now gone via trade — Beaty went to the Padres earlier this week — there’s room for Taylor to take over as the primary left fielder and longtime top prospect Gavin Lux to get in everyday reps at second base. Of course, that assumes no further additions are coming for the Dodgers. It’s at least worth noting that L.A. just traded its left fielder and has a right-handed-heavy lineup at a time when former All-Star outfielder Michael Conforto and his left-handed bat are still looking for a landing spot.
Meanwhile, the White Sox have yet to address a glaring hole in right field all offseason. The closest the Sox had come to bolstering the right field position was a recent trade for the Phillies’ Adam Haseley, but the Sox announced that Haseley was optioned to Triple-A just minutes before word of today’s trade broke. Pollock will now step right into the outfield mix, giving the Sox a quality option to pair with center fielder Luis Robert and left fielder Eloy Jimenez. The Sox went much of the 2021 season with first basemen Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets masquerading as corner outfielders, so bringing Pollock into the fold will give them a true outfielder — and a solid defensive one at that.
Pollock, who turned 34 this offseason, will come to the White Sox fresh off a .297/.355/.536 showing in 117 games/422 plate appearances with the Dodgers this past season. Typically a better hitter against lefties than righties — though his career marks against right-handed pitchers are still well above average — Pollock posted a more even split last season and was immensely effective at the plate regardless of opponent handedness.
That said, Pollock also spent more than a month on the injured list with a pair of hamstring strains, one in each leg. That marked the fourth time in the past five seasons — the shortened 2020 campaign the lone exception — that he’s spent at least a month on the shelf with an injury. Pollock has also missed time with a fractured elbow that cost him 150 games in 2016, a groin strain (2017), a fractured thumb (2018) and elbow surgery (2019) in recent years. Pollock played in a career-high 157 games in 2015, but he’s averaged just 88 games per 162-game season since that time. Notably, he did play in 55 of 60 possible games during the shortened 2020 campaign, which shouldn’t be completely overlooked when weighing questions about his durability.
Even if Pollock does miss time this year, the Sox have their share of fill-in options. Veteran Adam Engel gives Chicago a defensively gifted right-handed bat who can play any of the three outfield positions. Neither Vaughn nor Sheets graded out well in terms of defense last year, but they at least got their feet wet in the outfield and could handle some corner work on a short-term basis. The aforementioned Haseley is an option to be called up at any point and at least provide quality defense and a passable bat against righties. Utilityman Leury Garcia, meanwhile, is an option all over the infield or the outfield. Second baseman Josh Harrison has his share of experience in the outfield corners as well.
As for the Chicago bullpen, the team’s offseason dealings have helped to build a strong relief corps that looks formidable even sans Kimbrel. The Sox signed veteran righties Kendall Graveman (three years, $24MM) and Joe Kelly (two years, $17MM) to multi-year deals this winter. Of course, the Sox are subtracting not only Kimbrel but also free-agent righty Ryan Tepera (who went to the Angels on a two-year deal) and lefty Garrett Crochet, whom GM Rick Hahn announced is likely to undergo Tommy John surgery just minutes after announcing the Kimbrel/Pollock deal. Hendriks, Graveman, Kelly and lefty Aaron Bummer still give the Sox a strong quartet at the end of games, but they’ll need a few in-house options to step up in the middle innings — assuming no further outside additions, of course.
Ultimately, the swap serves as the rare one-for-one, pure baseball trade that sees teams exchange a pair of veterans to address a need on either side. It’s a mostly cash-neutral swap that gives the Sox a new everyday outfielder, the Dodgers their new closer and sets the stage for both veteran to play pivotal roles for their new teams — both during the regular season and quite likely in the playoffs.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.