Recently the Pirates mentioned they were pleased that Gregory Polanco agreed to play WInter Ball this off season, for many this was little more than a footnote, but for Gregory it’s both an admission he’s underperformed and a display of good faith that he wants to earn his contract figure.
Polanco has played winter ball in his native Dominican Republic before, twice to be precise the last time in the 2013-2014 off season. His performance there really laid the foundation for his eventual call up to Pittsburgh in the 2014 season. In 44 games and 194 plate appearances he had 55 hits, that’s a .331 average for those of you who hated every math class they ever took. 5 of those hits were home runs and he had 28 RBIs.
Now, that was over 6 years ago, I’m certainly not trying to tell you these numbers reflect the player he became in Pittsburgh but there is something to be said for getting back to your roots, enjoying the game again. Probably more importantly, playing again.
In the past two MLB seasons Polanco has managed to play a total of 92 games, arguably a full third of them either not fully recovered from a debilitating injury suffered at the hands of his own poor technique.
Getting better and playing that few ballgames in a two year span don’t go hand in hand. What this willingness on his part and request on the Pirates end of the deal really mean are two things. First, the team must believe he is fully recovered, now that doesn’t mean he will ever regain the arm strength he once had but it does mean structurally they believe he is not a risk to irritate the injury by playing regular baseball. Second, Gregory himself must understand he can’t just coast through 2021 and hope his option is picked up or another team will give him a sniff.
I don’t write any of this to try and paint a picture that Polanco hasn’t cared during his career, I actually don’t believe that in any way. Instead what I’m trying to illustrate is a player who understands he can’t expect to play a game he loves (at least not for nearly as much as he currently does) much longer if he doesn’t start showing more than potential. Injury and sky high expectations have surely slowed him down but at some point potential doesn’t cut it anymore, and at 29 years old, it’s long since passed time he no longer be talked about in terms of having some ceiling we haven’t seen yet.
His 2018 season was his best, where he was a 2.1 WAR player. Sure his 2015 was 2.5 but 2018 was his most complete work. 23 homeruns in 130 games with a .254 batting average, that’s it, that’s the mountain top. If he gives you that in 2021 it’s a very happy turn of events, one that would at least make the Pirates have to have some meetings before executing his buyout clause.
Not every player is going to maximize their potential, or hit like the body type they live life in, but there is room on every team for someone who will club over 20 homeruns and hit above .250, in fact that is what puts a player in that elusive 2.0+ WAR territory that most MLB starters should hope to achieve. Again, not an All-Star player, just a steady starter. When you’re 26, people will to a degree pay for the apparent upside, but a few short years later, not so much.
Playing this Winter is a good development and shows the kind of cooperation needed for both organization and player. It’s a good sign that the management isn’t afraid to make sure even one of the few veterans doesn’t think he’s arrived or that underperformance is going to be waived off.
Here’s hoping Greg forces the Pirates to have to make a difficult decision after 2021. If he does the Pirates will be able to thank themselves in addition to Polanco for the privilege.