I’ll always remember seeing Jason Heyward in A-ball.
I didn’t know much about the number five overall prospect in the game, other than his name and that he was a good prospect with an MLB future.
When I got to the stadium that night, I could see why, instantly.
Heyward looked the part.
He was bigger than everyone else on the field. When a ball was hit to him, or when he came to the plate, you took notice for the rare chance to watch him. It was obvious, even if you didn’t read Baseball America, that he was going to the majors.
I consider that my first “scouting” moment, seeing the actual difference between one of the best prospects in the game. There might be a few other future MLB players from that game, with Pedro Alvarez being the guy I was there for. However, that night, I was only certain that Heyward would make it, and probably do more than just reach the majors.
Comparing him to Alvarez at the time, you hoped Alvarez would be as good as advertised. You kind of expected it with Heyward.
I haven’t seen the Pirates with many prospects like that.
Gregory Polanco would probably be the closest example.
When I first saw Polanco, he was in the “sick giraffe” phase of his career. Extremely tall, extremely skinny, and extremely uncoordinated, Polanco was the definition of a project. He was a project who stood above the crowd, and left you wondering “what if he adds some weight as he gets older?”
The 2012 season answered that question.
Polanco added some weight and muscle, and went to Low-A, hitting for a .325/.388/.522 line, with 16 home runs. He would continue bulking up, continuing to bulk up dreams and expectations.
He eventually became a “walking toolshed.” He was rated the number ten prospect in the game by Baseball America, pre-2014. He was in Heyward territory, where you knew he was a future MLB player just by watching him standing above everyone else on the minor league fields.
Polanco did make the majors.
He put up some decent numbers, with a 2.2-2.5 fWAR in three of four years from 2015-18. His career has fallen off a cliff since, combining for a negative 2.2 WAR during the last three seasons. Injuries played a part, and Polanco’s inconsistencies became worse. His defense became a liability and his offense started to decline.
Perhaps there was too much dreaming and optimistic projecting taking place with Polanco.
I’m guilty of that.
Until Oneil Cruz came along, Polanco was the most dynamic player to come through the Pirates system. We hyped him up as such. As did every other outlet. That might be a flaw of the prospect evaluation game.
Polanco wasn’t just a product of prospect evaluators though. The Pirates gave him an extension in 2017, buying out a few free agent years. Polanco has been worth a combined 0.9 WAR during the span of the extension, which guaranteed $35 million.
The Pirates clearly thought that Polanco had more by giving him the extension. He was coming off back-to-back 2.2 WAR seasons, and was only 25. A year later, he had his best season, with a 2.5 WAR.
I don’t know if we will ever know why Polanco fell off a cliff after that. There are so many factors, and only he would know which ones impacted him the most.
What I ask instead is this: What would have been enough?
Polanco had reached that point in prospect evaluation land where you almost expect impact results. Fans start to demand it. The player is a letdown if he falls short of that, even if he has solid numbers.
Polanco had solid numbers through 2018. If his last three seasons had posted a 2-2.5 WAR in each season, he’d be a guarantee to pick up his 2022 option year.
There’s also the impact of the extension. Those come with the implication that the team is investing in a player before he breaks out. The deals are weighed long-term as either a great deal for the team, or a bust for the team, and always from the perspective of the team getting a deal.
The expectations were always high for Polanco in Pittsburgh. He didn’t live up to them.
That’s not a bad thing to say. The expectations were that he would be a star, and his league-average years were basically overlooked as a warmup for the main event that never came.
Never mind that it’s extremely difficult to make the majors and put up a 2 WAR in multiple seasons.
Perhaps the bad thing to say was the expectation that Polanco would be a star.
Or, that any prospect will be a star.
Aside from the uncertainty with injuries, and the difficulties in maintaining a consistent output in an ever evolving league, there’s the overlooked fact that being a star player is almost statistically impossible.
I’m interested to see where Polanco ends up next and how he does. I wouldn’t be surprised if a change in scenery allows him to return to being a productive MLB player.
Maybe just in the form of that 2 WAR player he once was.
I think that would be enough.