The Pittsburgh Pirates optioned Gregory Polanco to the minors today, which is a move that was expected this Spring, but not a move that everyone wanted to see. Travis Snider and Jose Tabata are no sure things in right field, while Gregory Polanco represents a potential impact player and the future starter at the position. It can be hard at times to back off the excitement of that future potential, and that’s one of the challenges the Pirates had with making this decision.
“Our challenge is to not get too excited, too soon, and to put him in a position he’s not ready for,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said. “And that’s what’s made this decision so difficult is that he is so talented, he is a great young man, and he’s a good worker.”
Huntington said that he told Polanco there are some organizations who would put him in the majors because he could go compete there and survive. He said that the Pirates don’t take that approach.
“That’s not what we want to do. That’s not what we’re about,” Huntington said. “We’ve said it from day one, when you put a player in the big leagues because you need him, and not because he’s ready, in our minds that’s the wrong reason.”
Everyone remembers young guys like Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, or Manny Machado who came up at a young age and stuck at the major league level. You don’t remember the guys who struggled, or who busted completely. You could argue that Jose Guillen, Aramis Ramirez, and even Jose Bautista are examples of guys who saw their careers stall because they were brought to the majors too early. Those are just recent examples in Pirates’ history and don’t include guys from other teams who have seen their careers derailed by being brought up early.
“Survival results in some guys never getting to that next level in which we think he can become,” Huntington said. “Sometimes it delays it by years. And we’re looking forward to Gregory hitting the ground running when he gets to the big leagues, and helping us win games, and helping us push toward October again.”
The Pirates have done a good job of bringing their prospects up at the right time. Andrew McCutchen had success from day one in the majors, and had a 3.4 WAR over four months in his rookie season. Starling Marte had some struggles in his brief time in the majors in 2012, but posted a 1.1 WAR in about two months of work. He had a 4.6 WAR in 2013 during his first full season in the majors. Gerrit Cole had a 2.3 WAR in half a season in the majors last year, and was looking like an ace by the end of the season.
The only notable guy who saw his career stall was Pedro Alvarez, who was sent down to Triple-A several times in 2011 during his first full season, before turning things around in 2012 and leading the NL in home runs in 2013.
It was easier with McCutchen, Alvarez, and even with Marte. The Pirates weren’t coming off a contending season where they made the playoffs. There wasn’t the pressure to make moves and put “the best 25” on the field on Opening Day. I think Polanco is probably one of the best 25 guys right now. He’s better than Snider or Tabata without being fully developed. But I think there’s more that could come from Polanco. The extra value the Pirates get from Polanco by starting him on Opening Day or a few weeks into the season does not match the value the Pirates get from him when he’s ready.
“We’ve worked very hard to stay logical and rational in our thought process, sometimes to the frustration of some,” Huntington said. “Emotional decisions in our minds are not the right decisions, and a logical, rational decision is to continue to allow this young man to work through things that he needs to work through to be able to hit the ground running at the major league level.”
Huntington said that Polanco needs to work on keeping his swing short, driving the ball gap-to-gap, continuing his strike zone command, and separating his defense from his offense. He will be playing right field full-time in Triple-A to get re-acclimated to playing the position. Polanco played right field in rookie ball, but has been a center fielder the last two seasons.
“Like everyone in the minor leagues, just refine his overall game,” Huntington said. “He’s got so much ability. He’s worked so hard. The improvements he’s made over the last two years are like few that I’ve seen.”
Polanco is a good player right now. He’s going to be a great player in the future. The Pirates might get some benefit from having a good player in right field from day one, but that isn’t guaranteed, and comes with the risk of derailing Polanco’s progress of becoming a great player. That’s not a risk they should take, as it potentially hurts Polanco’s value over the long-term, all to get a small upgrade for the very short-term.