by Rowan Kavner
Eight picks from the end of the Dodgers’ highly-regarded 2016 draft class that included the likes of Gavin Lux, Will Smith, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin came a versatile infielder who has caught the eye of his teammates.
Former 33rd-round pick Zach McKinstry, who made his Major League debut last season and played in four games, has already made an impression on AJ Pollock.
“McKinstry, that guy can absolutely flat-out rake,” Pollock said. “We saw that in Spring Training, and we know we’re going to have him. I don’t know when, but he’s going to be a contributor for sure.”
McKinstry went 1-for-2 and scored the Dodgers’ first run of the spring in Sunday’s Cactus League opener. He started at second base, though manager Dave Roberts said the Dodgers will also look to get him time in the outfield more this spring.
Last year was a strange one for McKinstry not having a Minor League season, but he made his presence felt with every big league opportunity he received. He posted a .414/.452/.862 slash line in the Cactus League last year before the shutdown. McKinstry bounced between the team’s alternate site and the Major League roster during the regular season, going 2-for-7 with a double in his first big league action.
“He’s just got a really, really advanced approach at the plate,” Pollock said. “His swing, it’s definitely going to play in the big leagues because it’s just so compact; it’s consistent. He’s got a really, really calm demeanor. You don’t see him getting too rattled, too up or down. He’s just super consistent. I’m excited for him. He’s a good dude, and his bat’s definitely going to play in the big leagues.”
Manager Dave Roberts described McKinstry as “a baseball player.” He can do a little bit of everything. With Kiké Hernández now in Boston, the utility void is one McKinstry has said he hopes to fill.
“In the batter’s box, he really understands his swing, mechanics,” Roberts said. “Every time he gets in the box he has a good plan.”
For some players, the shutdown between Spring Training and Summer Camp last year made it tricky to prepare for the 2020 season. For AJ Pollock, it came at the perfect time.
The break allowed Pollock the opportunity to be with his family and spend time with his daughter, Maddi, who was born three months premature in March. It also allowed him the chance to reset as it pertained to baseball.
Pollock posted the best OPS of his career last year (.881) and tied for the team lead with 16 home runs. That production came after he went 8-for-45 (.178) in 2020 Spring Training. Apart from being healthy, he said his work with hitting coaches Brant Brown and Rob Van Scoyoc before the season’s restart helped spur one of his best seasons as a Major Leaguer.
“I think I was kind of fortunate to have a pause button on the season last year — obviously with Maddi, but also just to kind of go back and look at some stuff that wasn’t quite working in Spring Training for me,” Pollock said.
Manager Dave Roberts said he thinks Pollock can demonstrate what he did in last year’s 60-game season over a 162-game season. Pollock may get to do that in a more everyday role this year.
The Dodgers have utilized platoons at multiple spots in recent seasons, splitting a position between two players depending on the pitching matchup that day. That was the case last year in left field, as well. But with Joc Pederson now in Chicago and no designated hitter spot, Pollock may have more of a regular opportunity.
“AJ had a heck of a year last year, and I think that obviously he’s a guy that we value,” Roberts said. “We see him in left field predominantly. He hits lefties and righties. He’ll be a regular out there, but also understanding that Chris Taylor, Matt Beaty, Zach McKinstry, guys like that are going to get some time out there too. How that looks right now, I don’t know. But to know that AJ’s going to play regularly is a pretty fair assumption.”
Whether or not the Dodgers utilize some line changes again — Roberts said that’s not always the first choice and is a byproduct of performance — Pollock said he’s going to prepare as if he’s playing every day. This year, with his daughter now home and doing well, he can do so with more peace of mind.
“Last year, a lot of guys had difficult situations,” Pollock said. “It’s not a piece of cake, because I leave here and go back and Maddi’s got a lot of energy. She’s moving around, so she’s keeping me on my toes. But as far as the stress level, it’s all good stuff now. It’s nice to be able to go to the park, get my work done, enjoy it there and go back and just have fun with her.”
A two-way talent
Designated hitter Matt Davidson hit the deciding home run in Sunday’s Cactus League-opening 2–1 win against the Athletics. Davidson has that ability, posting back-to-back 20-plus homer seasons in 2017 and 2018 with the White Sox.
But it’s not his only ability.
Davidson has also pitched in six Major League games, and Roberts said the Dodgers may utilize that two-way versatility this year.
“He’s in the mix,” Roberts said, “a guy right-handed bat off the bench, he can play third, he can play first. He’s open to the idea of logging some innings out of the ‘pen. He’s got the good arm with the openness, willingness. Threw a pen the other day, ball came out good. So he just gives us that versatility.”
Roberts said if Davidson pitches in a game it wouldn’t be until later in Spring Training after a few more bullpen sessions and a potential live session.