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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