Last week in our “Keep or Trade” series, we looked at the Pirates’ soon-to-be center fielder Starling Marte. This week we turn our attention to Gregory Polanco and as with past reviews, our goal is to ultimately answer the question “should the Pirates keep him or trade him?”
Gregory Polanco was a June 2014 call up and started off hot, hitting for a .367 average in his first ten games in the major leagues. He is a tall, athletic, left-handed batter who can hit for power. Many fans saw Polanco as the long term solution in right field, replacing the revolving door of players like Travis Snider, Marlon Bryd and Jose Tabata. However, Polanco hasn’t fully risen to the occasion. His 22 home runs last season was second only to Andrew McCutchen but he also had the third most strikeouts at 119. He is a player that will flash raw talent at you one day and the next day leave you wondering why he is an MLB starter.
Polanco has two and a half seasons under his belt and his career slash line so far is .253/.318/.404. Does that surprise you? It surprises a lot of people who view Polanco through the lens of developing superstar. This body of work is lacking in comparison to McCutchen’s first three season slash line of .276/.365/.458 or Starling Marte’s first three season line of .282/.342/.445. But Polanco hits a lot of home runs you say? True, he did have a breakout season in 2016 with 22 long balls en route to a .463 slugging percentage, but in the two seasons prior to that he didn’t hit more than nine. But Polanco led the team in RBIs you say? Well, RBIs are not a good indicator of a hitter’s skill, but instead a good indicator of how many people are on base when you are up to bat. Leading the team in RBIs is a nice accolade, but that’s it.
In 2016, his strikeout to walk ratio went from 1.87 in the first half to 3.2 in the second.
In support of Gregory, it should be noted that he has improved at the plate every season especially against left handed pitching. However, he has a disturbing knack of wilting in the second half of the season. In 2016, his strikeout to walk ratio went from 1.87 in the first half to 3.2 in the second. His slugging percentage for the second half of the season was only .414 after posting .500 for the first half. This was a repeat of his 2014 rookie season when his OBP dropped by 84 points from the first half to the second half of the season. On top of all this, his career batting average in August is .221 and in September/October it is south of the Mendoza line. Overall, his inconsistency is his biggest offensive weakness.
Polanco has played some outstanding defense in PNC Park’s right field – and he has played some defense that would make a Little League coach cringe. He has been given leeway to learn the position, logging 2,700+ innings in right field. In terms of defensive runs saved above average, Polanco has improved over his three years in the majors. He posted +3 defensive runs above average in 2016 after not being in positive numbers in the previous two years. Beyond the numbers, Polanco is an enigma in the outfield, he might track down an impossible line drive with a diving catch in one inning, and then literally trip on his own feet in the next.
Recently, the Pirates announced a move for Polanco to left field. Much has been said about PNC Park’s spacious left field and its tendencies to require a center fielder caliber player to cover it. Gregory Polanco is, at times, a center fielder caliber player. However, in the 200+ innings in 2016 when he played left field, he did not look like he knew what he was doing out there. Now that his everyday position is settled, it would be fair to expect more out of him in the field.
Intangibles and Injuries
By all accounts, Polanco is a hard worker who has a positive demeanor. He plays injured and will play team baseball when asked. He has missed a week here or there due to minor injuries, but they have not kept him out of the regular lineup. He injured his throwing shoulder last season and although he was still able to play, it obviously limited his ability to quickly and accurately throw the ball in from right field. Overall, there is nothing to indicate that Polanco is any worse than average when it comes to being injury prone.
Will the Real Gregory Polanco Please Stand Up?
Polanco recently signed a contract extension which puts him under team control through 2023. The Pirates would love nothing more than to see Gregory Polanco show up in 2017 and hit .280/.360/.500 with 30 home runs (most projections have him around .265/.333/.434 with 18 home runs). The problem with Polanco is he could just as easily post another .250/.320/.400 year in line with his career averages. Right now there are many teams that feel like Polanco has a lot of upside (the Pirates are one of these teams). This means that they value Polanco much higher than his body of work so far would normally indicate. If Polanco ends up being a lifetime .250/.320/.400 hitter, then the smart move is to trade him now while you can get a lot for him. If Polanco breaks out and hits .280/.360/.500 then it’s an easy decision to keep him.
So which Polanco do you think will show up in 2017?
The problem with Polanco is he could just as easily post another .250/.320/.400 year in line with his career averages.
There is a pretty strong case for the .250/.320/.400 Polanco in 2017. His hot start last season was due, in part, to an inordinate amount of walks early in the season. There was a period of time when Polanco was leading the National League in base-on-balls. This more than normalized and Polanco ended up as a worse than average player in this category. Another factor to consider is that Polanco had a very favorable line drive / fly ball to ground ball ratio in 2016. He had only 38.8% ground balls in 2016 after averaging 47% in 2014-2015. When Polanco hits it on the ground, he is a dead-pull hitter and a strong defensive shift will cut into his ground ball hits. It is likely that opposing pitchers will be doing everything they can to get Polanco to put it on the ground and for this reason, it is unlikely that he will repeat his 22 home run performance in 2017. Polanco will not develop into a hitter than can use the entire field in one season so his slash line will suffer.
Conclusion: Trade Polanco While the Getting is Good
The risk involved in forecasting Polanco’s offensive production is extremely high. There are a few teams that would jump at the chance to trade good pitching and infield prospects for Polanco and gamble that he delivers. Unfortunately, his track record over the last three seasons, combined with some of his peripheral statistics predict a different story. If the Pirates stick with Polanco for another lackluster season, then his trade value at this time next year will be much less than it is now.
Unfortunately, Austin Meadows is not ready (not financially anyway) to be brought up right now. Therefore, the right time to deal Polanco is at the 2017 trade deadline. This gives the Pirates time to make sure Meadows can step in and take over left field duties. It also gives Polanco a chance to prove his detractors wrong.
Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography