Heading into the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were sticking with internal options in right field, just waiting for Gregory Polanco to arrive in the majors. Polanco was the long-term solution for the Pirates, completing their Dream Outfield along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.
The Pirates opted to go with Travis Snider and Jose Tabata, two outfielders who struggled at the position enough in 2013 to warrant a big trade for one month of Marlon Byrd. Both outfielders struggled in the early part of the season. By the middle of May, Snider saw his OPS drop to .625. Tabata was no better, with a .612 OPS after the May 18th double-header against the Yankees.
During the month of May, the struggles from both players led to Josh Harrison getting more playing time in right field. Harrison started hitting well, and took over the starting role on May 20th, the first game after that double-header. Harrison went 2-for-5 with a double and a homer in the double-header, starting a stretch where he would put up an .820 OPS up until the arrival of Polanco.
With Harrison starting his breakout, the Pirates didn’t have a need for Polanco in the outfield, despite the fact that Polanco was tearing up Triple-A pitching. The need arose in early June, when Neil Walker went down with an injury. That shifted Harrison to second base, and led to Polanco getting the promotion.
At the time it looked like Polanco would be up for good, especially when he started his career with an 11 game hitting streak and an .863 OPS in that span. But Polanco started struggling after that, putting up a .602 OPS the rest of the season. He was also demoted to Triple-A in August, and spent most of September as a bench player and a pinch runner.
All of this was possible by Travis Snider’s breakout. It’s hard to say if something clicked when Polanco arrived, but Snider posted an .862 OPS in 224 plate appearances from the time Polanco first arrived to the end of the season. In his time as the regular starter in the outfield in September, he posted a .921 OPS in 72 plate appearances. He had an 11 game hitting streak in August, where he posted a 1.282 OPS. That would have been a 13 game hitting streak, had it not been for a pinch hit appearance in between the two events.
It was a strange turn for the right field position. It started with the Pirates waiting through Snider to get to Polanco. During that waiting period, Josh Harrison got his first chance as a starter, and began his breakout season. It’s hard to say whether Harrison would break out without that opportunity. Then, once Polanco arrived, it was Snider who broke out, eventually winning the job back by the end of the year. The 2014 season in right field was a season of unexpected breakout performances. The guy who everyone expected to break out ended up struggling, while two guys who weren’t even on the radar for production beyond mid-season 2014 ended up being two of the most productive players down the stretch.
I’m not giving up on Polanco at all. His .650 OPS wasn’t impressive, but that performance in his first run through the majors doesn’t define his future. Mike Trout had a .672 OPS in his first run through the majors, before turning into an MVP the following year. Starling Marte did better, with a .737 OPS, then improved to .784 and .808 the following two seasons.
The encouraging thing here is that Polanco didn’t look overmatched. He had an 18.9% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate. Those were both better than the league averages of 20.4% and 7.6%. He showed good base running, ranking 41st among 263 players with 300+ plate appearances in base running runs. He already started showing positive value defensively, with his arm ranking 23rd out of 98 outfielders with 600+ innings this year.
Eventually the hitting will click for Polanco. The Pirates will most likely make him the starting right fielder in 2015, since he’s the future at that position. It made sense to go with Snider down the stretch in 2014, since you wouldn’t bench a productive bat for a struggling rookie. But that’s not an approach that can be taken going forward.
This does raise the question about what to do with Snider. He probably won’t cost much in 2015, relative to what an average bench player makes around the league. His breakout in the second half can’t be ignored. If that is legit, then he’s not just a bench player, but a starting option for any team. The Pirates have a good situation here, since they could afford to keep Snider around as a fourth outfielder. That way, he could step up as a starter if someone goes down with an injury, or if Polanco continues to struggle in right field. The Pirates have gone a long time without a strong bat off the bench. They could have that in Snider in 2015.
As for the long-term future, Polanco is under team control through the 2020 season, and the Pirates have already started trying to extend him. I think the two sides will eventually come to terms on a deal, although it might not happen this off-season, or even during the 2015 season. Keep in mind that Marte signed an extension after his first full season, and McCutchen signed after his second full season. So we could be one or two off-seasons away from a Polanco extension. If he does sign, I think the Pirates will get three free agent years, just like the deals for Marte and McCutchen. That would give them control of Polanco through the 2023 season, which means it will be a long time before we have to think about the future of the right field position.