The Gregory Polanco issue continues to dog the Pirates, and well it should.
If it were just a case of the Pirates having a gaping hole in right field, the issue of Polanco, a highly regarded left-handed hitting outfielder, being summoned from Indianapolis would not be so front and center. But it’s not just right field where the Pirates are struggling. It's mostly everywhere. Following their doubleheader loss to Baltimore last night and this morning, 5-1 and 6-5 in 10 innings, they are 10-18 and 9 1/2 games out of first place.
Some believe Polanco is the answer to the problems that confront the Pirates and should be in right field no later than tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays at PNC Park. ESPN.com insider Keith Law, a former MLB assistant general manager, is in that group. He wrote this about Polanco, who is batting .398 with 25 RBIs in 25 games:
''In my opinion, they should promote him now and let him finish his development in the major leagues, where the influence of [Andrew] McCutchen and manager Clint Hurdle might actually expedite the process. When he does arrive, the Pirates will have a much better team and yet another young star to watch."
There’s indirect pressure from inside the industry. The Houston Astros, a team going nowhere, promoted outfielder George Springer, ranked as the 20th best prospect by MLB.com, last month. Detroit will recall pitcher Robbie Ray, ranked 91, to take the rotation spot of Anibel Sanchez. Polanco is the 12th-rated prospect.
A promotion of Polanco in the immediate future is unlikely for two reasons:
• The Pirates maintain he needs more seasoning and, unlike Law, believe the best place to do that is in the minors.
• If promoted at this point in the season, Polanco likely would achieve Super 2 arbitration status, which could end up costing the Pirates as much as $20 million.
As to the first reason: Polanco has only 107 at bats at Class AAA. He had only 243 at Class AA before that. In most cases, that is not close to enough time for a prospect to develop his game. Polanco, of course, could be the exception to that rule.
General manager Neal Huntington said, “In the big picture, it's (about) his readiness to come up and help this club win games and to thrive. While we are very much a statistically driven organization, it goes a heck of a lot deeper than a batting average. He's learning to make adjustments to how (pitchers) adjust to him. That's a crucial part of the next step of his development."
Believed to be the stronger reason is how such a promotion would affect Polanco’s arbitration years. Super 2 status could turn out to be as much as $10 million for Neil Walker, when he reaches his fourth season of arbitration in 2016. With Polanco being a more high-end talent and with his fourth year of arbitration likely to be 2019, that number could come close to doubling.
Huntington maintains arbitration is not the issue. ''It's not a driving factor for us," he said.
So what are we to make from these conflicting opinions?
The flaw in the argument for promotion is the notion held by almost everyone, including the well-respected Law, that not only is Polanco a sure thing, he is a sure thing from day 1. No one deserves that status. Mickey Mantle and many others floundered in their first MLB trials and had to be demoted. Roberto Clemente hit .255 with a .666 OPS as a rookie. More recently, Springer, certainly comparable to Polanco, is batting .182 with a .480 OPS since joining the Astros.
It's true that there’s a reasonable expectation Polanco will upgrade the Pirates in right field. It’s also possible he’ll deliver something approaching the same low level of offense that Jose Tabata and Travis Snider have supplied. And he could possibly do worse. It’s even possible he’ll fail so badly that, like Mantle, he’ll have to be returned to the minors.
That’s not an outcome the Pirates can contemplate lightly. Just about the last thing they want is to hurt Polanco’s development by rushing him to MLB.
The Pirates are not like most franchises, as much as some fans want to believe they are. Promoting Polanco before he is ready and before he is no longer Super 2 eligible is a risk they should not take.