First Pitch: Why Gregory Polanco Should Be the Next Extension Candidate

Back at the beginning of February, I wrote an article looking at extension candidates for the Pittsburgh Pirates, noting that this was where the team needed to spend their money. Everyone focused on the 2014 payroll this off-season, but two of the best moves that could have been made were the extensions of Charlie Morton, and today’s extension of Starling Marte. Neither of these moves has an impact on the 2014 season, since these players were already under team control. The long-term impact and value of these moves could be bigger than any move the Pirates could have made this off-season.

In the original article, I noted that Marte was my top extension candidate. After that, there wasn’t really a candidate that stood out beyond Marte. With Marte signed, let’s re-visit the other extension candidates to see who should be next.

Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole would be great extension candidates. However, they’re both Scott Boras clients, and Boras clients don’t usually sign extensions. There are some Boras clients who do sign extensions, but those tend to be the exceptions.

Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer are both in a similar situation. The Pirates control their rights until age 31. They also have Alen Hanson in the wings, which means they could go with a Mercer/Hanson middle infield in a few years. They’ve also got guys like JaCoby Jones, Adam Frazier, and others in the lower levels who could eventually replace Mercer. It wouldn’t hurt to extend Walker or Mercer and get control of 1-2 free agent years. However, it’s unlikely that they’d be needed for those years. The benefit to either extension would be cost certainty and some insurance in case the prospects in the minors don’t work out. I’d also say that Mercer isn’t close to ready for an extension, since you’d want to see what he can do over at least one full season.

That leaves the expected 2014 mid-season arrivals: Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon. In Taillon’s case, the Pirates might want to wait a few years to offer an extension, just to make sure he can adjust to the majors well enough. As for Polanco, he seems like a perfect candidate for an “Evan Longoria” type extension right after he arrives in the majors. Longoria signed a six year, $17.5 M deal right after he was promoted to the majors, which included three option years. Overall it bought out control of two free agent years.

Longoria had increases built into the deal based on Super Two status and MVP voting. The end result was that he earned $45.6 M over nine years, which is a tremendous value. The reason that is such a value is that there is a huge amount of risk. The deal looks good in hindsight, because Longoria worked out. However, the Rays didn’t even get a chance to see what Longoria could do in the majors before committing a ton of money to him. He could have just as easily ended up struggling like so many other top prospects, and then that deal would have looked similar to the deal the Pirates made with Jose Tabata.

Polanco projects to be an impact talent in the future, although that’s not guaranteed. However, what makes him a prime candidate for a Longoria-type extension is that he has skills that bring value to the majors without the need for an adjustment to the majors. Polanco has a ton of speed, making him a weapon on the bases, and allowing him to reach base on infield singles, even to the right side of the infield. He also has a lot of range and a strong arm, making him a valuable defender in the outfield. His speed and defense will give him enough value to make a long-term deal worthwhile, even if the bat doesn’t take off as expected. And if the bat does take off, then the Pirates would have their own Longoria-type value.

It would also be a smart move for Polanco to make, since he hasn’t made much money in his career. He signed for $150,000, and this is his first year on the 40-man roster, meaning it’s the first year where he’s making a decent amount of money in the minor leagues. By comparison, someone like Gerrit Cole ($8 M signing bonus) or Jameson Taillon ($6.5 M bonus) wouldn’t see the appeal with such an extension, since they’ve already had a big payday through the draft. These deals always look team friendly when they’re signed, because projections always lean toward the optimistic side. But as we saw with Tabata, a deal can go from looking team friendly to looking like wasted money in a very short amount of time.

If Tabata wouldn’t have accepted his extension when he did, then he’d currently be in his first year of arbitration. He might be up to $3-4 M in career earnings at this point, but overall he wouldn’t come close to the $15 M that he was guaranteed through the 2016 season with his extension. For someone who hasn’t received a big payday, that’s the motivation to sign a deal that everyone calls “team friendly” the moment it is signed.

With Marte under contract, Polanco becomes my top option for an extension. The Pirates can’t just say “accept this extension and we’ll call you up”, because they run the risk of a service time grievance. They’d basically be saying that the only reason Polanco is in the minors is for financial reasons. The Astros are currently going through this with George Springer. Any sort of negotiations would have to come after Polanco arrives in the majors. That should be in mid-June. And based on Polanco’s upside, plus his “safe” skills in the speed, base running, and defensive areas, the Pirates should start talking extension with him the moment he arrives in Pittsburgh.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**Pirates and Starling Marte Agree to Six-Year Deal

**The Pirates Could Get a Huge Value From Starling Marte’s Extension

**Draft Prospect Watch: Touki Toussaint Dominates in NHSI Start

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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  • emjayinTN

    The way the Pirates play the system, they bring guys up after May ends so they get 70% of a full season the first year and then 3 years at minimum of $500K. So, for about $1.7 mil they are getting 3.7 years of MLB service and production. That is what they are offsetting when they offer a long term deal. Marte would have had 2 more years at minimum if he had not accepted the “guaranteed” contract. If it follows the Pirate “trend” it will be for about $750K in 2014, $1 mil in 2015, and then the normal numbers through his 3 Arbitration years which we can figure $2.5 mil in 2016, $4.5 mil in 2017, $6.5 mil in 2018, then fill in from there with the two year(s) of FA.

    Polanco has everything that Marte has in regard to Tools, in addition to the fact he hits from the left side and he has always been more of a middle-of-the-order hitter for average, power, and a much better ability to control the strike zone. Winning the MVP Award in the Dominican Winter League is a major accomplishment, and the Pirates are desperately looking for a Lefty hitter to park in front of or behind Andrew McCutchen. With his speed he will settle into #2 very nicely when he comes up, and the Pirate OF will be the best defensively, the fastest, and possibly the most power of any OF in the Majors. I agree with you that we need to lock him up ASAP.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I’d prefer: Marte, Walker, Polanco, McCutchen, Alvarez, Sanchez, Mercer, Martin

      • stickyweb

        I’ll take vs RHP: Polanco, Walker, Cutch, Alvarez, Marte, Ike Davis, Martin, Mercer.
        And vs any LHP foolish enough to pitch against our Bucs: Polanco, Marte, Cutch, Gaby, Alavarez, Mercer, Martin, Walker

    • stickyweb

      Good post MJ, but I need to disagree with “Polanco has everything that Marte has in regard to Tools, in addition to the fact he hits from the left side and he has always been more of a middle-of-the-order hitter for average, power, and a much better ability to control the strike zone”
      Control of the strike zone is indisputable. Polanco walks almost twice as often while striking out a good bit less. But the middle of the order, avg and power parts, not so much. Marte slashed .303/.361/.462 in 6 minor league seasons. Polanco has done .277/.350/.419 in 5 seasons and the difference was even more distinct in the higher minors. Marte was made a leadoff hitter basically by default and to get him used to MLB without the pressure of producing in the middle of the order (think Barry Bonds). I think everyone expects him to end up in the middle of the order eventually.
      That said, everyone also expects Polanco to develop more power than he’s shown thus far, since he’s obviously hit the weights like a beast. But at similar points of their career, Marte hit for better avg and power.

      • wmcclurg

        Big difference in ages when comparing their minor league numbers:

        Marte started his age 21 season playing Rookie ball and finished in high A.

        Polanco started his age 21 season in high A and finished in AAA.

        • stickyweb

          Well if you consider 8 games in Rookie ball for Marte and 2 games at AAA for Polanco, then you’re technically correct. I think it’s more accurate to say Marte played his 21 season at High A (but must have been injured cause he only played half a season or maybe he would have been promoted too) and Polanco played his 21 season split between High A and AA.
          But even conceding your point, I would say the age difference may equalize their power and avg numbers, but we shouldn’t come to the opposite conclusion that Polanco hits for a better avg and more power when the numbers don’t bear that out.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    What is GPs actual power ceiling? 15? 20? 25? Just curious, he sure added a ton of muscle, has bat speed. Just find it surprising there isn’t more than 15-20 hrs in him per year on the high end.

    • meatygettingsaucy

      From what I’ve read, due to his size and strength, Polanco projects to be along the lines of a 20-25 HR per year guy. Coupled with that, he is going to smack a boatload of doubles and triples

  • impliedi

    Agree with just about everything in this article. I would have zero interest in extending Walker. If Mercer continues to hit, perhaps there should be mild interest in exploring an extension, as we’ve seen that offensive shortstops are a bit of a rarity. Alvarez’s market value will always be overinflated by the HR’s, so he’d be very wise to go to the open market. I would really love to see a Cole extension because he is starting to look like he’s going to be a top 5 MLB pitcher very soon, but since he knows that too, there’s nothing for him to gain by signing an early extension.

    My only slight “reminder” about Polanco is that even his “safe” skills could be gone in the flash of one major injury. Obviously, that’s true for anybody and you shouldn’t let that fear keep you from signing long-term deals, but we can’t just assume that Polanco’s going to have a lengthy career because of those skills.

    I guess my issue with an extension that early is: who stands to gain and what is there to lose by waiting a season or two?

    From Polanco’s perspective, he has no financial leverage by signing the moment he comes up. It would be in Polanco’s best interest to come up and have a good year or two and drive his value higher, since his ceiling is an unknown at this time. If he has a poor season or two at the major league level, most will assume that he’s having a tough time adjusting, but that he will get it soon, so he won’t really lose anything (except for a small amount of a raise that he would receive during those 1 or 2 years.)

    For the Pirates, I don’t see what they have to lose by waiting a year or two to see how he does. I get the whole “financial security” argument, but unless Polanco comes up and hits .350 with 35 HRs in a half season this year, his numbers in the majors in the first year or two won’t significantly drive up his value over what it is now based on potential.

    • impliedi

      Or to put it another way:
      Polanco has everything to gain and nothing to lose by waiting a year or two to sign an extension (because even a poor performance won’t really reduce his value).

      The Pirates have basically nothing to lose by waiting a year or two, and maybe a very small amount to gain (confidence that Polanco can do well in the majors by seeing it first hand.)

      • jaygray007

        well he does have something to lose by waiting a year. he could either be a bust or blow out his knee. I agree that he should probably wait a year or so, but there is absolutely value in taking a contract now and guaranteeing that you’ll be set for life instead of betting on your health.
        It’s why we get insurance. we have a little less money than if we’re healthy 100% of the time, but we’re a lot less screwed if/when things go wrong.

        • impliedi

          You must be an insurance agent!! Insurance is clearly a benefit to the insurance company, not the insured because the percentages are heavily in favor of company (otherwise they could never make money).

          It’s the same here. The percentages are clearly in the player’s favor. There is absolutely no way that Polanco can be a bust after a year. He could hit .110 and strikeout 80% of the time and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt, that he’s still adjusting to the major leagues. You don’t shake that “prospect” status after one failed half-season.

          An injury can occur to any player at any time, but the chances of being career ending (or career altering) are so small, that nobody should base their contract signing on the chance of that happening.

          Polanco would do best to wait. He can’t harm his value, and could possibly raise it by being an immediate success.

          • smurph

            I like the insurance analogy. I never really got the premise here. Every year I will give you some of my money, and if something happens in the future, you will give me some of my money back.

      • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

        These contracts are also player friendly for those players who haven’t signed a big bonus. They get the potential financial security and still are young enough for the big payday at the age of 29, 30 or 31. That is where the big payday come. $100 million + contracts!

  • Y2JGQ2

    Of course knee, hamstring, ankle problems can quickly rob speed away and that is a huge risk because that also affects defense because of a drop in range

  • Nate James

    Totally agree Tim. I would love to hear about talk with Pedro’s camp on an extension even though that is more of a dream. Locking up our outfield though would be amazing!!

  • rip55

    i think polonco tweeted a couple months back he bought a 2008 nisson maxima. he will sign early and cheap.

  • glassers

    Saw him hit a home run an hour or so in an inter squad game . This kid is the real deal .