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.

The Future

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.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. So for some people on the board…we yell “cheap!” when we don’t play the best 25 in Pittsburgh. Now we want to hand a starting RF job to someone who flopped in his first go around and showed enough that he was sent back to AAA. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if A) We were in 2006 when we would be happy to have a prospect so we didn’t have to pay a one yr Burnitz, Casey, Santiago type to suck it up and B) We weren’t a legitimate organization competing for NL Central Championships. With that being said, IMO you most certainly give that initial vote of confidence to Travis Snider and hope he is a Brandon Moss 2.0 that we didn’t let go of. Then…if it was a perfect world, thatd give Pedro a chance to gain value back, Snider continues to grow, Polanco figures things out and your 2016 roster has Snider at 1B, Polanco at RF, and Alvarez in Seattle for 2-3 nice pieces in our minors.

  2. I wonder whether Polanco will start the season with the parent club. You have NH’s comments 3 weeks ago that he “hated promoting Polanco” when he did, and felt that El Coffee was only “borderline ready.” He has repeatedly pointed out that Walker (1200+ PA in AAA), Cutch (880) and Marte (400+) all spent more time in Indy than Polanco (280) did. And now we hear he would prefer Polanco NOT play winter ball. I guess that last point could go either way – “he’s our starting RF, we don’t want anything to happen” or “it’s been a crazy year, kid. Take the winter off and let’s re-set the clock back to June 9, 2014.”

  3. No- you give Polanco the job and throw away the key. Regardless of how well Snider is playing, Polanco needs to play to reach his potential. Polanco can literally be twice as good as Snider when Snider is playing his best. Polanco at his worst, is only the value of Snider when he is playing average. Snider has no arm, little speed, there is nothing dynamic about him, hence a 4th outfielder. Polanco can steal bases, has an amazing arm, and if they do NOTHING other than make him bunt every time up in Spring training, and force him to play 100 feet away from the wall in the outfield so he can learn to go back on the ball- those are really the only things he needs to be an immediate impact.

    • Snider’s actually got a really good arm. You don’t give Travis the credit he deserves. His OBP is pretty solid and there’s some power in there. When Snider is playing at his best, he’s putting up a ~.900 OPS. Greg’s going to be awesome but he’s not twice that player. Ultimately, if Snider’s late season was legit, we’ve got a good problem on our hands but the players will write the lineup.

  4. Polanco’s fielding was not good. Fangraphs had him at 6.4 runs below average. His UZR was -3.2. And his defensive runs saved was -3.0. He should be given all the time he needs at AAA to develop as a hitter and an outfielder. Many very good prospects have been hurt by being rushed to the major leagues. Few suffer from spending too much time at AAA. The rightfield job should be Snider’s to lose.

    • RJ…at this point, I am willing to give Snider another shot to claim it and keep GP in AAA (I doubt we’ll get the frantic calls for him if Travis is hitting well). What was Travis’ defensive rating?

    • You seem to be putting an undue amount of faith in defensive ratings based on 600 innings, and 180 plate appearance by Travis Snider. Through 1518 PAs Snider was 88 wRC+ hitter, in his last 188, 149 wRC+.

      • To a point he is.. but it doesn’t seem like he’s using them to project Polanco to be a weak defensive player next year.. just simply stating that his defense last year was not great. . I think sss only matters when you’re projecting with them

        • I read it as projecting that Snider should be the RF, because should be given all the time he needs at AAA to develop as a hitter and an outfielder. I disagree performance on 14, 90-10% fielding plays, (according to Inside Edge), isn’t telling use anything about Polanco’s fielding ability and more time in AAA, is only going to demonstrate that Polanco can crush AAA pitching, which is something we already know.

          • We read it a bit differently.. the numbers show he wasn’t that great in the field last year.. he had few innings in rf in the minors as well.. there was a lot written that he had things to work on tracking balls.. the numbers do not show that he’s figured it out.. it makes sense to give him the necessary innings to do so in the minors.. if he can prove that he’s able to field (new position) in the minors then perhaps give him a call up then… the offensive part I just brushed off as referring to him being lost at the plate last year.. given that snider is showing that he can play the position and gives professional at bats it should be his to lose until Polanco is more about performance then projection ..

    • And if spending time in AAA was all a prospect needed to immediately become a good Major League Baseball player, you’d have a point.

      But it’s not.

      MLB has the largest learning curve of any jump in leagues. It’s entirely possible – hell, probable – that Polanco could’ve stayed in Indy for five years and never been challenged to the point where he’d hit the ground running in Pittsburgh.

      • If we had a huge hole in rf then it would make sense to give it to Polanco. . During the time Polanco spent in the majors he was beat out for the position though.. if one believes like I do that snider deserves rf to begin next year as the starting rf then it seems Polanco would be better served getting full time play in aaa versus part time as a bucco.. if the discussion is just what is best for Polanco’s development only, then I would agree

  5. Will the Pirates ever consider Travis Snider at firstbase? If he finally did have his breakout season, Tim is right, he’s not a bench player.

    • We’ve discussed that a lot over at the PBC Asylum. It would definitely be OJB, just like Pedro. If you move Travis to 1b, what do you do with El Toro? Trade him at a low point? I don’t want to see him at 3b ever again.

  6. “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.”

    Tabata played well down the stretch last year and put up respectable numbers for the year overall. Byrd was acquired after Marte went down to injury (Snider was already injured).

    • Me hopes so.. not so much about Polanco. Just feel like snide deserves the opportunity and if he starts off as a 4th his value will go way down. Polanco is still a pup.. tim, wasn’t there a lot of doubt about marte’s hand injury that caused the overpay for byrd. We were running lambo out in rf until the move was made

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