First Pitch: Is Gregory Polanco’s Move to Right Field a Sign?

The Pittsburgh Pirates can’t seem to catch a break offensively this year.

All year the outfield has had one hole: right field. You might not have noticed this, but after standing pat at the trade deadline, the Pirates have seen Jose Tabata hit for a .298/.365/.491 line in 57 at-bats. That’s a small sample size, and Tabata has been known to have streaky performances where he will go on hot streaks, then fail to sustain that hitting. That said, any production out of right field this year is great to see.

Of course now that the Pirates are getting production out of right-field, left-field becomes an issue. Last Sunday, Starling Marte went down with a hand injury. Today he was placed on the disabled list. We don’t know how serious the injury is. There’s reason to believe that Marte could return when he’s first eligible on September 3rd. The main reason would be that if the injury was serious, I don’t think the Pirates would have waited to see if Marte could return in a few days before placing him on the DL.

As long as Tabata keeps hitting, the Pirates are back where they were before August rolled around. They’ve got one productive outfielder, and one spot where they’re hoping Andrew Lambo can immediately carry his Triple-A hitting over to the majors. It’s not as comfortable of a situation, considering that there’s less trust in Tabata’s numbers than there was with Marte’s numbers.

Then you’ve got the first base position. Garrett Jones looked good with an OPS above .800 in the month of July. In the month of August he has looked horrible. Meanwhile, Justin Morneau looked equally horrible in July, but has been hot in the month of August. Most of that hot streak came during a ten day stretch where Morneau hit six homers to start the month. Since then he has a .771 OPS in 51 at-bats, which isn’t as good, but is better than Jones.

The Pirates will have six days to decide if they want to trade for Morneau, stick with Jones, or find another option on the market at first base. The outfield isn’t as simple. The best thing would be for Starling Marte to return as quickly as possible. Even if that happens, there’s still the other spot. It’s great to see Jose Tabata hitting well, but it’s hard to trust that hitting until he finally does it on a consistent basis. Andrew Lambo is the backup plan, and is also a rookie who isn’t guaranteed to have immediate success. And if Marte doesn’t return right away…

#FreeGregoryPolanco?

Polanco is starting to heat up at the plate in Altoona. He had a .321/.393/.547 line in 53 at-bats during his recent hot streak, not counting tonight where he went 2-for-7 with two doubles and a walk in a double header. But the offense isn’t the interesting thing about Polanco lately. It’s his position.

Gregory Polanco has played three games this week in right field.

Gregory Polanco has played three games this week in right field.

Tonight Polanco played both games of Altoona’s double header in right field. He also played Wednesday’s game in right field, which was his first game this season out of center.

The eventual move to right field wouldn’t be a big surprise. That’s the only position in the Pirates’ outfield that isn’t solved for the long-term. It has been a big hole for the Pirates this year. Eventually Polanco would be penciled in to that spot. The surprise here is that Polanco is already starting to get time at the position. That seems all too coincidental.

I don’t want to suggest that the Pirates will call Gregory Polanco up to the majors. That would be very unlike them, as they don’t usually rush players through the upper levels of the minors. As it stands right now, Polanco is on a hot streak recently, but also has an overall .272/.365/.413 line in 213 at-bats. He’s still raw in some areas on the field and could use some polish. He shows an advanced approach at the plate, but it’s questionable whether that advanced approach in Double-A would carry over to the majors right now. These are usually the reasons why the Pirates have players spend the proper amount of time in Double-A and Triple-A.

All of that said, allow me to be a conspiracy theorist. We’ve known for a while that right field is the long-term need in the Pirates’ outfield, and Polanco is the guy to fill that need. So why is the move suddenly coming now? Three days after Starling Marte hurts his hand, Polanco moves to right field. A week and a half before rosters expand, Polanco moves to right field. I can’t imagine this is all to get Mel Rojas some time in center field, since he played there a lot before Polanco arrived, and Rojas definitely isn’t on the same level as Polanco. I could see this being an effort to get Polanco more playing time in right field. But for when? Next year or next week? Again, considering the history, I wouldn’t place strong odds on Polanco getting the call in September. But it does seem strange that he’s moving to right field now.

As for whether he’d be the answer, I think he’d be in the same situation as Andrew Lambo. It’s not guaranteed that he would come in and put up immediate production. Consider that Lambo was destroying Triple-A pitching for two months after destroying Double-A pitching for the first half of the season. Now consider that Polanco has been destroying Double-A pitching for two weeks. Why would Polanco be more likely to succeed than Lambo in September?

In these situations, people often confuse future potential with where a player currently is in his development. In Polanco’s case, he has more upside than any hitter in the system. That gets translated as “he’s the best option for Pittsburgh right now”. But that’s not the way to look at things. Neither is the classic “Let’s see what happens”. The “Let’s see what happens” argument is one of my least favorites, because it’s silently admitting that the player probably isn’t ready, and hoping that by some miracle he can put together a strong run against the odds.

I will say this: the idea of seeing Gregory Polanco in the majors is exciting. I say that with the huge disclaimer that he has only played three games in right field, and that could be meaningless. But at the same time Starling Marte is out with an injury, and the Pirates have two question marks at either corner outfield spot without Marte. Lambo isn’t proven and Tabata isn’t proven to be consistent. So in this case, the “let’s see what happens” argument kind of applies. It doesn’t apply in the “Maybe Polanco will realize his upside early” way, but in the “the bar is already set so low” way.

I’ll also add the disclaimer that there’s a personal bias here. I’ve been big on Polanco for several years, pretty much since the moment he came to the US. I called his breakout before the 2012 season, which is only less impressive because I called the same breakout before the 2011 season. If the rankings on the site were just my own, Polanco would be the top prospect in the system, with Jameson Taillon second. So if Marte does miss more time than is expected, I wouldn’t complain about Polanco getting a shot, just to finally see him in the majors.

Overall I think we need to look at the facts about this situation.

**We don’t know how long Starling Marte will be out, or if he will miss more time beyond his 15 days.

**We don’t know if Polanco was moved to RF with this year in mind or next year.

**Jose Tabata has lacked consistency in the majors.

**Andrew Lambo is unproven in the majors, much like Polanco. The key difference is that Lambo put up great numbers in Double-A and Triple-A.

This is a situation where there are no signs at all that point to Gregory Polanco being up in September. At the same time I could see a situation where Polanco gets called up, and all of the above facts make that move look so obvious.

The kicker here is that the Pirates don’t usually make moves this aggressive and skip a guy past a level, especially when he’s not even dominating his current level for an extended period. It’s for that reason that I doubt Polanco would be up in September, even if there are some clues that suggest otherwise.

Links and Notes

**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Indianapolis Clinches Playoff Spot, Meadows and Herrera Homer.

**Nick Kingham Labors As Curve Prevail.

**Gregory Polanco Doubles Twice, Drives in Two as Curve Sweep DH.

**Minor League Playoff Watch: Four Affiliates In the Hunt.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Regular Season Wraps Up on Saturday.

**Minor League Schedule: Kris Johnson Returns to Indianapolis.

Pirates

**Pirates Notebook: Why Tony Sanchez Has to Earn 26 from 59.

**Starling Marte Placed on the DL; Andrew Lambo Recalled.

**Liriano’s Rough First Inning Can’t Be Overcome in 6-3 Pirates Loss.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/107500598404660809214 Kerry Writtenhouse

    The nice about Polanco that would make skipping a level possible is his strike zone judgement. I’ve never seen him play, but from your coverage, he doesn’t seem to be a free swinger. They would have Tabata around for the tough lefties although it seems he hits them fairly well.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Some comparative stats for Polanco and Lambo for the exact same number of AB’s (220) at Altoona. EBH Lambo 27, Polanco 20; RBI Lambo 46, Polanco 39; W/K Polanco 34/32, Lambo 20/60. For the experience and number of overall games played by Lambo in AA, my choice would be Polanco.

    Now, I like Starling Marte and see him as a future star for the Pirates, but Jose Tabata has been excellent. He has proven the Pirates correct in not doing a reach to trade at the deadline, and since that point is carrying an .856 OPS. In fact, if you compare he and Marte on numbers alone, Tabata has batted 275 AB’s less (483/212) but is only 12 doubles less (25/13), 7 HR’s less (11/4), 13 RBI less (33/20), with a W/K of 21/32 to Marte’s 25/127. Marte is light years ahead on SB’s. If you saw these numbers without knowing who the players were, and somebody asked you to blindly pick a leadoff batter based solely on those numbers, who would you pick? Yep, me too – we would be looking at the W/K ratio as a primary consideration for a leadoff batter, and the other numbers are near equal if you prorate them.

    I want Marte in LF as soon as possible, Tabata or Polanco in RF, and Gaby Sanchez at 1B. In Sep, Polanco is either being moved to AAA for the playoffs, or to Pittsburgh – I choose Pittsburgh.

    • Bucco_Joe

      It makes no sense to move him into the majors at this time. If the team was out of contention and was playing meaningless games in September, then maybe you being him up and gauge where he is, and see what he needs to work on. To promote a guy that started the season in hgh A ball to the MLB playoff race in September seems like a move made out of desperation raher than logic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nic.tweardy Nic V Tweardy

    I think the question we should be asking isn’t is he ready, but rather is that if we bring him up and he struggles is it going to hurt his development into a major league right fielder? Maybe Polanco is one of those players that isn’t ready but he is ready enough to finish his development in the big leagues. Because if a call up in September isn’t going to hurt him then I think the “Why not” or the “lets see what happens” arguments are valid. Who knows, maybe we have our equivalent to Manny Machado.

  • elgaupo

    Defense obviously means a great deal to the Pirates. Polanco’s defense would make the Pirates better whereas Lambo’s defense made the Pirates worse.

    Also, Lambo is a fringe propects and they don’t care about his clock. They care a lot about Polanco’s clock, BUT September doesn’t count.

    I’d be fine with his callup as long as he started next year in AA or AAA.

  • skliesen

    I used to work for a self-made billionaire, and one of his axioms was, “treat everyone the same by treating them all different.” Seems to me the Pirates need to evaluate Polanco and decide if he’s ready to make the move. There’s no doubt he can use his speed to help roam the outfield and steal bases. However is he ready for the pressure cooker of a playoff run and will his bat play right now vs the best pitching in the world? If the Pirates believe the answer is yes, than they need to make the move.

  • BallHeadWonder

    Tim,

    Just wondering, what was the difference when the Orioles bought up Manny Machado from Double A?? Was he tearing it up in Double A?? Or did the Orioles just say “We’ll See if he’s ready?”

    • Cato the Elder

      Machado had a triple slash of 266/352/438 in 109 games (459 PA) in AA when he was called up.

      Polanco is at 273/365/418 in 62 games and (261 PA). The numbers are similar but Machado had nearly twice as much time at AA

  • brilemon

    Where is GP in relation to machado and puig at the same level of career?

    • brilemon

      I looked at BA website… Polanco compares well with puig and machado… It’d be cool to see Tim and company put together a side by side between players who’ve jumped AAA.

  • reddfoxx39

    Prediction: no chance we go into October with Garret Jones AND Andrew Lambo starting vs RHP. They are in essence the same player.
    I am all for Polanco getting his shot now if our advanced scouts think he is up for it, especially if Marte is hurt worse than we know.

    I just went to the first 3 games in San Francisco. What a ball park. Seeing the Pirates in person for 27 innings really gave me a different perspective.
    My takeaways:
    1. Jordy Mercer will be in the lineup somewhere in October. He was so impressive, having great, professional AB’s all weekend hitting line drives all over AT&T park. I would sign off on him playing 3rd vs lefties in the playoffs.

    2. Jared Hughes isn’t long for the big leagues. He just did not pass the eye test. Consistently getting behind hitters and not controlling his sinker/split? He won’t be on the postseason roster.

    3. Lambo isn’t ready. I know people will say give him time (I am sure he will get his shot with Marte out), but looked overmatched in his 2 high pressure AB’s last night. I don’t think Huntington trusts him either.

    4. Charlie Morton has a ton of confidence right now. I loved how fast he worked and he had a plan! Strikeout numbers are not everything. Easily our #3 right now.

    5. We need to add a professional bat. That’s what gets you that extra run in October. Garret Jones continues to turn in really poor at bats. That to me is the determining factor in whether to make a deal or not. I don’t watch the Twins play much, but Morneau is a much better hitter right now than Jones, and IMO would give better AB’s in October.

    6. Tabata is an enigma. He obviously will be on the postseason roster, but he doesn’t do the things that winners do. Maybe I am nitpicking, but he just doesn’t hustle and his baseball instincts aren’t close to Marte’s. the slight pose in the batters box leading off the game stopped him from getting to 2nd base on a ball that bounced off the wall in the right field corner. He is batting LEADOFF! Pence busted his tail and held the loafing Tabata to a single. If he gets to 2nd, we score most likely and get a lead for Liriano. He is a below average baserunner/outfielder. He’s a bench player in October (I hope)

    7. Last thing. We are a very confident team. It just shows in the way we conduct ourselves per and post game. Just want to give us every chance to get to the series…….

    Go Bucs

    • buster09

      red : that is a good analysis. Tabata has always been the same player,from his Minor League career to now. The only difference in his demeanor comes when he is not hitting, his lack of ” hustle ” becomes more obvious.

  • emjayinTN

    Machado, 18, Lo A 145 AB’s, .276
    Polanco, 20, Lo A 485 AB’s, .325

    Machado, 18, Hi A, 260 AB’s, .245
    Polanco 21, Hi A, 241 AB’s, .312

    Machado, 19, AA, 459 AB’s, .266
    Polanco 21, AA, 220 AB’s, .273

    Needless to say, The Orioles believe in moving their prospects fast. The Pirates have only moved Polanco as fast as his ability allowed. He will be 2 years older than Machado when/if he reaches the majors in Sep. Middle of the order bat hitting .273 and 34W/32K is MLB-ready for a September callup. This kid is a ballplayer, and the field is the same dimensions in AA as it is at PNC, and the bases are 90′ so roaming the OF and running the bases will not be anything new. If he struggles offensively, the benefit of seeing it will be worthwhile – to me, it is a no lose situation, especially for a team that was never supposed to be in this situation in the first place. There is no way he stays at the MLB level, and he will get his 60+ days of “refinement” at the AAA level to begin 2014 – that is the only thing I am sure of with this kid.

    • brilemon

      Super— thanks!!!

    • BallHeadWonder

      Great insight!! Will a September call-up hurt for the future if he starts in AAA next season?? I would think if he gets a taste and then start in AAA next season will only fuel his fire to get better over the winter and into Spring next season!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/adam.bindas Adam Bindas

    Although we see comparisons with Machado and Polanco displaying Polanco as statistically better, Polanco is not ready for the big leagues. The orioles push people too fast where their success/failure rate with prospects is higher. Polanco has potential to be a special player. A big kid with plus speed and advanced batting approach is hard to come by, though he is simply not ready yet. Polanco needs time to learn how to field, and grow into his frame. I would rather wait a year and let Polanco gain more wieght on his frame, improve defense, and improve his hitting against better pitching. Polanco is still adjusting to AA pitching and although the AAA teams have simply become a parking lot for the backups, it would be smart to allow Polanco an extra few months otherwise once he enters the majors his focus will turn from learning to winning. Promote Polanco before the all star break for all I care next year, but don’t put the pressure of achieving to potential, without actually growing to his potential.

  • timdwyer8

    Also of note with all the Machado comparisons in the comments is that Machado is one of the best defenders in baseball at 21. Polanco is a good defender with plus-potential, but he’s still not a finished product defensively.

  • CalipariFan506

    Agreed with holding Polanco back until next June or July. It’s not fair to such a young guy to basically give him the pressure to get the offense over the top. If he fails then who knows. Alvarez failed initially and lost an entire year of development. Marte and Cutch both were brought up more conservatively and neither ever struggled enough to suggest going back down.

    • buster09

      As someone who is as big ,or even bigger Polanco booster than Tim,I have seen almost every one of his home games so far in AA. What I am going to tell you about comparing his approach and plate discipline to both Marte’ and McCutchen when they arrived at AA is that he was/is much further ahead of Marte’,and also a step ahead of Andrew,though not nearly as much as he was ( and still is ) ahead of Marte’. Take that for what is worth.

      • reddfoxx39

        Taking away the service time argument (which is impossible for some) aren’t we just comparing Polanco with Tabata, Jones and Lambo?

        I just want good AB’s in October. That’s it. If Polanco gives you better AB’s, then it’s him. That simple. We know he has plus speed and plus defense (over everyone mentioned earlier)…..so it’s all about AB’s.

        If we don’t trade for Morneau, then I’m for it.

        Ideal playoff roster
        Martin
        Sanchez
        Morneau
        Sanchez
        Walker
        Barmes
        Pedro
        Mercer
        Marte
        Cutch
        Polanco
        Tabata
        Jones

        Liriano
        AJ
        Morton
        Locke
        Jenmar
        Cole
        Mazzaro
        Morris
        Wilson
        Watson
        Melancon
        Grilli

      • emjayinTN

        Buster: I ascribe to that theory that AA pitching is equal to or better than the pitching at AAA because many teams do not want to see a young prospect lose a year. That is an argument for another day, but I have heard nothing but superlatives about his ability to cover ground AS A CENTER FIELDER, and in Pittsburgh he will be in RF where he sees the ball differently (better), but has to cover much less ground. The key to all of this is the W/K Ratio that tells us he is ready. Plate discipline is usually the last thing that comes, and is usually the reason guys spend a few months in AAA. He will not skip his time in AAA, just play in Pittsburgh in September rather than Indianapolis, and strat next year at AAA.

  • leadoff

    IMO, the reason that GP was switched to right field was to move him to AAA because they are in the playoffs and Lambo will be with the Pirates, so there is a spot for him and if he performs well, they know they probably have a right fielder sometime next year and looking ahead as they must do, GP will give them some answers as too whether they need to spend big money for a right fielder over the winter or get a plug in for a while.
    In no way do I believe the Pirates are even considering GP for the majors this year. I know how good he is but the Pirates are huge on body development and I do not believe he is developed enough for the majors yet. GP probably is up for some teams this year, but the Pirates have their own system. Segura came straight from the Angels AA system to a starter with the Brewers, will skipping AAA hurt him down the road, time will tell, it sure hurt the Cubs Castro.

    • benh444

      im not worried about polanco turning into castro. castro was ready for the majors and was consistently a 3 war player until this year. his high k rate and low bb rate are catching up with him, but hes also been the victim of bad luck this year as well. polanco has much better plate discipline and that should carry over to the majors eventually

  • buster09

    leadoff : I would think that you are right about this,particularly when looking at the way the orginization has moved players in the recent past.

  • SteveW

    One thing to remember about Machado is that he did not light up the league offensively when he came up. His 2912 OPS was a so-so .738 – but his defense made him a clear upgrade at the position.

    This year he had a very good first half but may have hit the wall by early July. Over the last 45 days his OPS is only .610. It will be interesting to see how he finishes.

  • benh444

    things that concern me about polanco: his average in A ball was largely driven by a high BABIP and that has evened out more in AA. his ISO has dropped at every level he has moved up.
    things that are good: his bb rate has increased and his k rate has dropped. hes instantly a defensive upgrade.

    when its all said and done, i think it would be a mistake to call him up right now. imo he needs another offseason to fill out, improve his power. if he can do that, well see him in pittsburgh next june or july and preserve his service time for another season

  • piratemike

    I can’t see why bringing up Polanco for a month will destroy his career.
    Next year he will be facing ML pitching in spring training and at AAA so he just gets a months head start.
    I understand that the atmosphere will be different being in big games but I think they will pick and choose when they play him not just throw him out there and let him sink or swim.
    Bringing him up is up to the people who are around him every day and if they feel he can handle it then they are the best to judge that move.

  • Monkshot

    I completely agree with leadoff.

  • CalipariFan506

    They could get Bonds back in his prime and it wouldn’t help right now. Walker, Martin, Alvarez and Jones are a combined about 10-100 this week. Looks like the Pirates are headed into one of their weekish long slumps like they had opening week, and against Cincy/Atlanta in May/June. It’s almost unwatchable right now.

    • michaelbro8

      Ummm…. Not
      They went 4-3 in a traditionally tough west coast trip (for any team) and faced some tough pitching. So tip your cap to them; the Cards and Reds wish they could have accomplished that.

      • emjayinTN

        mbro8: Calling it like it is. The Pirates went into the All Star Break 19 over .500 and everyone knew that the next 30 games were going to be tough – they are now 22 games above .500 with 32 games remaining. We started the season hoping to break the 21 year jinx of not playing .500 or better since 1992 – I like our chances to make that! As far as the playoffs are concerned, it is all but assured that the 3 teams from the NL Central will make it. Next in line are the D’backs who are 3 games over .500. I like our chances to get to 88 wins which I think will lock up a playoff berth. I would rather win the Central, but we’ll see. No Morneau or anything else.

  • smurph

    I would love to see Polanco’s splits against RHP vs. against LHP. Guys with a big swing like Lambo, Jones, Pedro and Gabby tend to have trouble hitting against pitchers throwing from their side (RHP vs. RH, LHP vs. LH).
    I am kind of torn here, but it would be interesting if they did call him up. His batting eye could earn some walks, and he is a threat on the bases. Think about next season, having 3 outfielders who can steal well over 100 bases.