On September 7th of 2018, Gregory Polanco was up at the plate against the Miami Marlins in the 6th inning. He hit a line drive into the right-center field gap that was cut off by the outfielder. Polanco hustled around first and then performed what might be the worst slide in major league history. This one play would end up changing the course of Polanco’s career.
Going into that September game, Polanco was enjoying one of his best seasons with the Pirates, hitting .254 with 23 homers and 81 RBIs. He also had 32 doubles, and of course the last double came in that game against Miami. He ended up having a badly injured shoulder, and it was one that resulted in surgery and obviously, the end of his 2018 season.
After surgery, Polanco took a really aggressive approach to his rehabilitation. Because his injury was on his left throwing arm, this surprised many that he would try and come back so quickly. Before Polanco even played another game with the Pirates, many predicted that he would reinjure that shoulder. He would have a chance to prove those people wrong when he returned in 2019.
Originally, the Pirates projected at best an early June return, but instead Polanco returned to the field just about 7 and a half months after that slide, on April 22nd, 2019. In this game, Polanco batted 3rd and started in right field. His first game back was definitely a success, as he went 2-4 with a double. Luckily, he did not have to slide on the hit or really do anything where any injury would happen. Polanco would play in 42 games through June 16th, hitting .242 with 6 home runs and 17 RBIs. On June 22nd, one month after his 2019 debut, Polanco was placed on the 10-day Injured List with posterior left shoulder inflammation. After an attempted rehab assignment in Triple-A Indianapolis, the Pirates decided it wasn’t worth it to risk the rest of Polanco’s career, and he was shut down for the remainder of the 2019 season. Ironically enough, his final game of 2019 came against the Miami Marlins as well, just like the 2018 season.
Polanco actually took the time to make a full recovery this time, and he came back on schedule for the 2020 Spring Training. While he wasn’t one of the big prospects that impressed like Oneil Cruz or Cole Tucker, he did go 8-21, which is a .381 average. Polanco also added a home run and 3 doubles. The big question looming was if Gregory Polanco could finally put it all together and produce a 30+ homer season with 85 or so RBIs. The even bigger question after that was whether or not he would be able to stay healthy.
Then, of course the coronavirus pandemic plagued the world, and everything was put on hold for at least the next few months after the MLB season was supposed to start at the end of March. Instead, the season was delayed all the way until the beginning of July, when players took the field for Summer Camp, or as some preferred to call it, Spring Training 2.0. One player was notably not there, and you probably guessed already, that player was Gregory Polanco. If you thought it couldn’t get much worse for Polanco, it did as he allowed the Pirates to reveal that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. This forced him to miss the entirety of training camp and start the season on the injured list.
Fortunately, Polanco only missed the first series of the season against the Cardinals and was back in the lineup in time for the first home game against the Milwaukee Brewers. He went hitless in 7 at-bats, striking out 4 times. His first hit came in the first game of the series against the Chicago Cubs, where he went 1-4 with a double. In 10 games from August 1st to August 19th, he only had 2 hits in 32 AB’s. Both of those hits were home runs. He also struck out 16 times over that same span. That’s a strikeout rate of 50%. Gregory Polanco had only gotten 3 hits heading into the August 21st-23rd series against the Brewers.
Derek Shelton, the manager of the Pirates continued to display confidence in Polanco, and he stuck him in the lineup for the series opener. It wasn’t a lot, but Polanco did have a nice swing for a single and an RBI in a big inning for the Pirates. In the next game, Polanco was back in there again, and he hit the ball hard twice for a 2-3 game. One of them was a double and then in the fourth inning, he blasted a Josh Lindblom breaking ball over the wall in right-center. In Sunday’s game, Polanco also went 2-3. In his first at-bat, he hit a hard ground ball, 111 MPH to be exact, past the shift for a single. He stole a base in this at-bat, and then again when he walked his next time up. He came up in the bottom of the eighth when the Pirates were down by 1 with 2 outs and Cole Tucker standing on first base. He was facing David Phelps, who had been virtually unhittable, only allowing 1 earned run up until that point. Polanco got Phelps’ cutter, which he hit for a no-doubt home run to right center.
The Milwaukee series really showed what Polanco could potentially be, but it’s the other times, like his slump to begin the season that really shows how inconsistent he could be. Kudos to Polanco for sticking with it, and even though he’s not out of the woods yet, it’s a promising sign for what could come with his offense. Remember, he went over 4 months without facing any live pitching.
So where does Gregory Polanco fit in with this team moving forward? Well, for starters he’s under team control through the 2023 season, although he does have buyout options for both 2022 and 2023. Next year, he does not have that option, but he does get 11 millions dollars in guaranteed money. So, the Pirates will probably give him the rest of this year, and then next year to see if he can get something going. Because if the universal DH becomes a permanent thing, then Polanco could become a big power bat with little worry about his fielding (although he has thrown out one runner this year). This year was supposed to be a year for evaluation, but 60 games is not going to be enough time to properly do so. Like I feel myself saying way too much, this is a case of we’re just going to have to watch what happens, and then decisions will be made based on that. Everyone can have their own assumptions and opinions, but they can’t and won’t be validated until we see how this ends.