Tough Decisions: Gregory Polanco

Coming off their first playoff appearance in a thousand years, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in a tough spot. On paper, they’re clearly second-best in their division. A whopping 30 out of 31 of us predicted the St. Louis Cardinals will win the National League Central. We did pick the Pirates to take the second wild card, by a thin margin over the Cincinnati Reds. Our depth charts predict the Pirates to be the sixth-best team in the National League. Per WAR, they’re in a virtual heat with the Atlanta Braves. However, nobody (except me) is taking the Colorado Rockies seriously — so maybe they’re actually predicted to finish fifth.

In any event, it’s clear the Pirates are in a position where every marginal run counts. As it turns out, they have a position that could potentially be improved by many runs if only it weren’t for service time considerations. And no, it’s not first base.

Right field looks like a modest problem area for the Pirates. At the moment, the work will be split between Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. Tabata’s expected to receive the lion’s share. Waiting in the wings is Gregory Polanco. This article is about him, but let’s identify what’s up with the other duo before moving on.

Tabata is signed through at least 2016, with three options. When Tabata signed that contract, he was coming off a rookie campaign that was worth almost two wins in 441 plate appearances. Since then, he’s had a couple seasons at a slightly below-average rate and one partial season six runs below replacement level. He hasn’t matured into the high-value role player the team had hoped That said, he’s entering his age-25 season and he’s coming off a decent 341-plate-appearance season. Tabata’s something. The issue is whether he’s enough to help get the Pirates to a postseason berth.

Snider is a little simpler to summarize: The 26-year-old has scorched various brands of minor-league pitching, but he can’t seem to put it together at the major league level. His power’s declined in the past two seasons, so it’s not certain there’s anything here to salvage. For a Pirates’ franchise that likes to find buried treasure, Snider is a good guy to give a shot to. The danger is giving him too many replacement-level at bats. If his bat is showing life, he can conceivably platoon in both right field and at first base.

Which brings us to Polanco, the guy Baseball America ranked as the game’s 10th-best prospect. Here’s what Marc Hulet had to say about him about a month ago:

The Scouting Report: A fast-mover, Polanco is still learning so it’s impressive that he reached Triple-A on the strength of his raw talent. The outfielder has a chance to be an above-average fielder with right field being his most likely destination where he’ll be able to showcase his plus arm. At the plate, he flashes the ability to hit for both average and power but he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls. He also has a bit of a long swing at times and needs to focus on taking a shorter route to the ball because he doesn’t need to swing out of his shoes to hit the ball with authority — thanks to his above-average bat speed.

That jibes with reports that suggest he can handle center field. Other outfielders who can handle center and feature strong arms — such as Josh Reddick and Shane Victorino — posted defensive marks in the range of +15 to +25 runs saved. Let’s conservatively suggest Polanco could probably save five to 10 runs in a full season. Comparatively, Tabata and Snider profile to be worth between zero and five runs lost on defense.

Offensively, Polanco has the raw tools to be a good contact hitter with on-base skills to boot. His future power is uncertain, but he’s currently more contact-oriented than he is powerful. Whether the 22-year-old is ready to use these tools at the major-league level is a question better posed to Pittsburgh’s’ talent evaluators. What we do know is his combined defense and contact-heavy approach probably put a one-win floor on his performance. Meanwhile, the Tabata-Snider platoon projects to between one and two wins without much upside.

If that was all the Pirates had to consider, we might see Polanco start tomorrow against Jeff Samardizija. But as we all know, service time considerations reign supreme. There are two dates the Pirates will be watching: The first is typically around the fourth week of April. That’s the point in the season where a player can no longer gain a full service year. If Tabata-Snider are playing poorly and Polanco is mashing in Triple-A, we might see him called up then.

The other date is usually in late June or early July. That’s when clubs can can avoid Super Two status, which applies to players in the top 22% of service time. As an example, Wil Myers was called up on June 16 last season.

Super Two players get an additional year of arbitration, which is a good thing for those who want to make more than the league minimum. On average, Super Two players make between $10 million and $15 million more than their not-so-super cousins.

For the Pirates, the decision on when to promote Polanco really depends on a few distinct factors. They absolutely will wait until they can claim a seventh season of club control, which would happen sometime in late April. Tabata and Snider will audition while we wait for that date. If one or both are playing decently, it could behoove the Pirates to continue auditioning them into the summer. In particular, Tabata’s contract and youth could be seen as valuable to some clubs; enough so they may part with a useful prospect.

Polanco’s development is important to consider. It’s been said more than once that we’ve been spoiled by guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. To a lesser extent, Myers also fits in that conversation. Unfortunately for impatient fans, there is a very real chance the best thing for Polanco is a full season against Triple-A pitching. That might be the ticket for him to tap into his power. At the major-league level, he’ll be struggling every day against the best pitchers in the world. That’s not the best place to practice putting backspin on the ball.

The last factor is a cost-benefit analysis. We know the Pirates need marginal runs in 2014. Presuming Polanco provides more of those than Tabata, plus backups, the question becomes: “Are those runs worth enough to justify the potential for an additional $10 million to $15 million in the next six seasons?” This’s the business side of baseball, and it’s entirely possible the fiscally responsible decision is to hurt the club’s playoff odds in 2014 so it can realize long-term savings. A playoff berth is extremely valuable — both in the same year and in future seasons. The Pirates have an opportunity to bill themselves as a franchise that’s truly turned the corner, which could have a huge influence on revenue. But if Polanco only helps the club’s playoff odds by a very small percentage, then the right choice might be to keep him in the minors.

The decision to promote a top prospect is a difficult one. It’s hard enough if the franchise is only worried about player development and value in the current season. Adding service time considerations complicates the math. I wish I could tell you what the right decision is. And I really wish the answer was to promote him immediately, because I can’t wait to watch this guy play. For the time being, though, everybody needs to wait for a little more information.



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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.


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salvo
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salvo
2 years 1 month ago

This is the best-hyphenated on-line baseball writing I’vse seen in a long time, and no, I’m not being facetious.

Lee Malvo
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Lee Malvo
2 years 1 month ago

and you’re a comma chameleon

Smashing Bumpkins
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Smashing Bumpkins
2 years 1 month ago

Too bad he just ripped his hamstring

APRIL FOOLS

GH
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GH
2 years 1 month ago

Is it relevant that St. Louis has promoted all their best pitching prospects? Maybe it’s best for the Bucs to be a year or two behind the cardinals aging/contract curve? Maybe not, since the cards can afford long term extensions when the time comes.

rusty
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rusty
2 years 1 month ago

My recollection is that service-time worries are less of a concern for pitchers — in part because of higher attrition through injury.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
2 years 1 month ago

“His future power is uncertain, but he’s currently more contact-oriented than he is powerful. ”

I think this comment is based more on 2013 numbers, he showed up at camp ripped coming off a big HR surge in winter ball. I think that “currently” people will be surprised by his pop.

szielinski
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Member
szielinski
2 years 1 month ago

Points worth adding:

Polanco will eventually receive a long-term contract offer just as Tabata, Marte and McCutchen did in the past.

The Pirates believe Tabata and Snider struggled because of past injuries. Both are injury prone but have ceilings they still could achieve.

Giving Tabata and Snider chances to excel might return a player at a position of need if the team can create a package which entices a trade partner. The organization not only has high-ceiling prospects, it is also deep at many positions.

An outfield composed of Marte, McCutchen and Polanco would likely be the best defensive outfield in the Major Leagues. For a team committed to strong team defense, Polanco might not arrive soon enough.

As a Pirates fan, I want the Pirates to promote Polanco as soon as they believe he is ready while also respecting his Super Two status. The Pirates will always be a budget constrained organization. They must pinch pennies if they want to keep as many of their best players as their revenue makes possible.

dklcr
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dklcr
2 years 1 month ago

I don’t think this is a very tough decision…1 full year of a developed Polanco is worth far more than a few months of newbie Polanco. Of course he’ll produce more than Tabata/Snyder, but the Pirates’ window is not closing…promoting Polanco early would be an excessively win-now-ish move for a team that has the luxury of time.

Utah Dave
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Utah Dave
2 years 1 month ago

To me, the downside of brining Polanco up too soon exceeds the upside of brining him up sooner. I’m not much of a Travis Snyder fan and I like Tabata when he is healthy. But I would be concerned about the risk of brining Polanco up too soon and having him struggle and it creating longer term consequences with him. And, yes, the Pirates have to face the Super 2 realty.

It is inevitable that the OF will be Cutch, Marte and Polanco in the near future. I cannot wait to see that. I also agree they will try to lock up Polanco if he pedigree proves correct.

Josh
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Josh
2 years 1 month ago

I’ve never bought into dont bring him up to early and let him struggle/lose confidence argument. Virtually all young players are going to struggle to a certain extent when they first get called up, no amount of “minor league seasoning” is going to prevent this. Rarely someone will be great right away (Trout) someone will struggle for a few years before finding their niche (Alex Gordon) and some will just never make it. If a guy doesnt make it or is more of a Alex Gordon I find it hard to belive that more minor league games would make a difference.

LONNIE
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LONNIE
2 years 1 month ago

Ask the Nats about time not being such a luxory or given.

Mike
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Mike
2 years 1 month ago

Is there any evidence about the impact of Super 2 on the cost of a pre-arb extension? My gut tells me that if the Bucs are serious about locking up young players to pre-arb deals (a la Marte), then the Super 2 designator isn’t as big of a deal as it’s made out to be.

Spencer
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Spencer
2 years 1 month ago

Of course it does. These pre-arb deals use estimated arbitration earnings as a starting point.

Jackson
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Jackson
2 years 1 month ago

It’s an easy decision. Polanco’s not ready yet. Just look at the wall he hit last year at double-A compared to high-A. The need for more time to hone and develop skills couldn’t be more obvious.

Service time doesn’t apply here.

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