GREGORY POLANCO, CORNER OUTFIELDER
|Born: September 14, 1991
Height: 6′ 5″
Signed: Int. FA, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2009
How Acquired: Int. FA
Country: Dominican Republic
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|Polanco started off with the Pirates as a tall, lean, athletic outfielder with excellent speed. The Pirates thought he had power potential, but initially he didn’t show a great deal of hitting ability. He has the speed and athleticism to play center and also has a very good arm. He’s also shown good base stealing ability. By 2012 he’d filled out some–without losing the speed–and had a breakout year at the plate. Through 2016, he hadn’t shown any platoon split at all.
Had respectable first season as the regular right fielder in the DSL, including lots of walks but also lots of strikeouts. He hit for only gap power.
Struggled in GCL, although he did start to show some power, with three HRs. He finished tied for fourth in the GCL in steals, while getting caught only twice. His walk and strikeout numbers, though, were very bad.
Back in the GCL, Polanco showed improvement, especially in his strike zone judgment. He split time in center with Willy Garcia and also played right, and had eight outfield assists total. He was perfect as a base stealer. The Pirates moved him up to State College at the end of the season and he got into three games there.
Polanco had a breakout season and established himself as one of the better hitting prospects in the minors. Unlike Alen Hanson, who got off to a huge start and then cooled off, Polanco started fairly well and kept improving. His OPS was .822 before the South Atlantic League All-Star game and 1.030 after. His overall numbers might have been even more impressive if he hadn’t missed over half of August with an ankle injury. He destroyed LHPs, with an OPS of 1.087 against them, compared to .850 against RHPs. His plate discipline was very good. His base stealing efficiency wasn’t quite as good as previously. Baseball America rated him the 3rd best prospect in the South Atlantic League.
Polanco didn’t have quite as outstanding a season as in 2012, but he had a strong enough year to make his way through three levels. He spent the first half at Bradenton and put up strong numbers. The Pirates promoted him in June and he hit respectably at Altoona, especially for a 21-year-old, but never quite got on a hot streak. He was significantly more patient in AA, possibly a matter of feeling his way against better pitching. He struggled against LHPs on the year, posting only a .693 OPS against them, but like his reverse split the year before it may have been happenstance more than anything. Scouting reports on Polanco continued to be very good, although there’s some question whether hell have more than average power in the majors. He impressed scouts in the field as well and profiles as an above-average center fielder. Of course, he won’t be playing center in Pittsburgh any time soon, but an outfield of Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen could be extraordinary defensively. Perhaps in preparation for that, Polanco played six games in right and three in left for Altoona. Otherwise, he played center all year. The Pirates promoted him to AAA for the last couple games of the season and the playoffs.
The Pirates added Polanco to the 40-man roster in the off-season. He got some attention with a huge winter campaign in the Dominican, then opened the season in AAA and was blistering hot from the start. This of course led to clamoring for him to be called up and accusations that the Pirates were leaving him in AAA strictly for financial reasons, to avoid “super two” eligibility. The Pirates maintained that he needed more time and, even when it appeared he was unlikely to qualify as a super two, they still didn’t bring him up. They only did so on June 10 when Neil Walker got hurt, forcing them to move Josh Harrison from right field to second. Polanco started off hot, but slumped after a couple weeks. He struggled severely with LHPs, putting up just a 171/222/244 line against them. On the positive side, his BB:K ratio shows he wasn’t overwhelmed. Polanco is a disciplined hitter who tries to wait for a pitch he can handle. He didn’t dominate in AA when he moved there from high A, as he seems to need time to get comfortable at some levels. He was also tentative at times in the outfield, taking some bad routes, but he showed a strong arm. The Pirates eventually sent Polanco back to AAA for the last week of the minor league season. He came back up in September, but mostly came off the bench.
The Pirates effectively committed themselves to Polanco in right field when they traded Travis Snider after the 2014 season. He continued struggling, hitting just 237/315/338 in the season’s first half. Despite calls from many fans for Polanco to be sent to AAA, the Pirates stated that they never considered it. In July, the talent started to emerge. He posted a .787 OPS that month and .880 in August, before slumping to .607 in Sept/Oct. He continued to have trouble with LHPs, with a .528 OPS against them for the season, compared to .747 against RHPs. He hit better against LHPs in the second half, though, and the Pirates, after largely platooning him in the first half, generally left him in the lineup every day. Polanco also showed he wasn’t overmatched against the game’s best pitchers, going deep off Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. In the field and on the bases, he was prone to gaffes, often through over-enthusiasm. His defense became stronger as the season went along, though, and he finished second in the NL (to Starling Marte) and tied for sixth in MLB in outfield assists. That included twice when he threw hitters (both of them pitchers) out at first on what appeared to be routine singles. The defensive metrics showed him to be above (UZR) or well above (+/-) average in right. In addition, despite the occasional gaffe, his baserunning still rated as highly valuable based on the metrics. As a result, he’s similar to Marte and Jason Heyward in being much more valuable than his hitting numbers suggest, a factor that the Pirates seem to appreciate.
The Pirates approached Polanco about a long-term contract extension in 2014, but the parties didn’t reach a deal. The team kept at it, though, and the two sides agreed to an extension at the start of the 2016 season. The contract includes five guaranteed years, plus two team options, which lets the Pirates potentially keep Polanco through his first three free agency years.
For quite a while, Polanco seemed to be establishing himself as a standout player. Through the end of May, he was hitting 310/386/556. He tailed off over the next several months, batting 244/301/467 from the beginning of June through the end of August. In September he slumped badly, hitting 191/245/266. Deteriorating plate discipline clearly played a role. In April, Polanco had 16 walks and 13 strikeouts. In May he hit six HRs and slugged .604, but he had nine walks and 26 strikeouts. From July 1 through the end of the season, he had 16 walks and 55 strikeouts. Injuries may also have been a factor, as he was hampered by foot, leg, hamstring, shoulder, facial (from running into a wall) and neck injuries over the season’s last several months. The hamstring injury in particular seemed to be a problem, as he was visibly struggling with it but the Pirates weren’t willing to put him on the disabled list. In the end, Polanco missed only 18 games, but it might have been better if he’d sat out more. He remained well above average defensively and finished tied for fifth in the NL in outfield assists.
The 2017 season was a large step backward for Polanco, a lot of it due to injuries. He was struggling with a shoulder injury, sustained during the World Baseball Classic (in which he was a standout), by the time the season started. He also missed time in April with a groin injury, then went on the disabled list in May with a hamstring injury. After returning, he sprained an ankle and missed a few days. In July, he finally started to get hot — he had a 1.035 OPS for the month — only to suffer another hamstring injury, putting him back on the DL. In August, he re-injured the hamstring and went back on the DL, costing him a month. In 28 games after the beginning of August, he batted just 191/250/281. He’s established a frequent pattern now of trying to play through injuries and struggling, going on the DL, struggling when he returns, and getting hurt again not long after he starts hitting. On the season, Polanco had a large platoon split, with a .586 OPS against LHPs and .730 against RHPs. He opened the season in left field, but had some gaffes in the field. When the Pirates moved Andrew McCutchen back to center following Starling Marte’s PED suspension, they moved Polanco permanently back to right. He continued to be gaffe-prone in the field and on the bases, but Fangraphs’ BsR stat still considered him to be an above-average baserunner and, according to UZR, he was above average in both left and right.
Polanco went through some extreme ups and downs during the season. He seemed to be trying to hit for more power early, but the power came at a cost. He didn’t get his batting average above the Mendoza line until May 2. The problem seemed to stem from two sources: an extremely low batting average on balls in play (just .246 through the end of May, .287 for the season) and an inability to hit pitches over the inner part of the plate. Around the end of May, Polanco moved back from the plate and exploded for an OPS of 1.008 in June and July. He slumped to .672 in August. For the season, he had a modest platoon split, with an OPS of .864 against RHPs and .771 against LHPs. On defense, Polanco’s UZR was terrible early in the season, causing considerable consternation among Pirate fans who see no problem with tiny sample sizes. It was probably just statistical noise, as the metric returned to about average by the end of the year. Polanco also stole bases efficiently.
By September, Polanco had established himself as the Pirates’ best offensive player and had even stayed healthy all year, but then disaster struck. On September 7, an awkward slide left him with an injured knee and shoulder. The latter was the real problem, as it required surgical repair to his labrum.
Polanco’s season turned into a disaster. Desperate for outfield help due to injuries, the Pirates brought him back too soon. He initially was expected to be out until sometime from April through June. He started on rehab right at the start of that period, on April 7, and was back with the Pirates on April 22. Initially, he had a lot of trouble in the field — especially throwing, which was expected — but he hit well. By May 12 he had a .912 OPS, but after that he struggled. Eventually, he acknowledged that he was having shoulder pain that was affecting his swing. In mid-June, the Pirates shut him down for rehab. He tried a couple times to return but continued to have shoulder pain. Late in the season he started on PRP injections.
Polanco tested positive for COVID-19 before the season started, but he didn’t miss much time. His season, however, was a disaster. When he made contact, he hit the ball harder than all but a small number of players in MLB, but he seldom hit the ball. His whiff percentage was off the charts against all types of pitches. He chased a lot of pitches out of the zone, but also routinely swung at and missed pitches over the heart of the plate. Despite the power he generated, his swing appeared awkward, as if he couldn’t adjust to pitches well. It seems very likely his shoulder hasn’t recovered its range of motion. He remained a liability on defense.
Given their anemic power production, the Pirates desperately need a healthy and productive Polanco, but it’s looking more and more doubtful whether they’re going to get that. He has one more guaranteed year left on his contract and the Pirates no doubt would love to dump that obligation, but they’re extremely unlikely to find a taker. They don’t seem to have a viable alternative other than to give him one more chance, then decline his 2022 option if he doesn’t come through.
|Signing Bonus: $150,000
MiLB Debut: 2009
MLB Debut: 6/10/2014
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2020
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2013
Options Remaining: 2 (USED: 2014)
MLB Service Time: 6.103
|April 11, 2009: Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as an international free agent.
November 20, 2013: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.