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…
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.
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.