Gregory Polanco has the upside to be a star player in the majors. So far, that hasn’t happened, although he’s only spent one full season in the majors, and just turned 24 at the end of the 2015 season, so it’s still early.
Polanco showed some good signs in 2015. Overall, he had a 2.3 WAR, which was largely fueled by his base running and defense. He’s got a plus arm, and proved to be a guy you shouldn’t run on in right field. He also stole 27 bases, providing value in the running game.
There were some encouraging signs that Polanco was starting to take steps towards his upside, but they were largely hidden behind the scenes, and less obvious than the success with throwing out runners and stealing bases. He had a slow start to the season, with struggles in April, May, and June. He started heating up in July and August, putting up some great numbers. And it would have been great to say that he showed a ton of improvement in the second half, with that improvement possibly being carried into the 2016 season. But he ended up slumping in September, and posting one of his worst offensive months of the year.
That said, there was still a lot to like behind the surface numbers, even in September. In terms of making hard contact, his three best months were the final three months of the year, all finishing over 30%. That includes 30.7% in September. He also finished with his third lowest soft contact rate in September, at 16.8%. By comparison, the league average this year for hard contact was 28.6%, and the league average for soft contact was 18.6%. Polanco was above average in both during the month of September, but didn’t see the results you’d expect him to see with that type of contact.
A big part of this was due to his unlucky tendency to hit balls right at fielders. I saw this first hand in many of the games I covered, with Polanco smoking a lot of 100+ MPH hits off the bat, only to see them go right to a fielder. This happened in the Wild Card game, when he smashed a ball 107 MPH right into Kris Bryant’s glove in the sixth inning.
If Polanco keeps hitting the ball hard, he will eventually start getting hits. His BABIP was a very unlucky .265 in September, which doesn’t make sense, as he had one of his best line drive rates (21.2%) and one of his lowest fly ball rates (36.4%). Typically, line drives have the biggest BABIP success rate, and fly balls have the lowest success rate. A combination of more line drives and fewer fly balls would lead to a much higher BABIP, rather than one of his lowest rates of the year.
Polanco is a young player. He’s still developing in the majors, and one season isn’t nearly enough to call him a finished product. The tools are there to be a great all-around hitter, and if the second half trends with harder contact continue, he will see much better results in 2016. Add improved hitting to a guy who provides a lot of defensive value and value on the bases, and you’ve got a star player. It may not look like he’s close to that when you look at the overall numbers, but digging a little deeper shows that he’s closer to that upside than he appears.
The Pirates have their outfield locked up for a few years. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through the 2018 season. Polanco is under control through 2020, and Starling Marte is under control through the 2021 season. The Pirates extended Marte and McCutchen to have them under control for a longer period of time, but haven’t reached an extension with Polanco yet.
That’s not surprising. There has been a lot of talk the last two years about the two sides discussing extensions, including Polanco turning down a deal that would have guaranteed him $20-25 M and paid upwards of $75 M for ten years. It’s hard to say at this point whether he’s smart for turning the deal down, or whether he should have taken the money. A breakout year next year would allow him to command over double the guaranteed money, while still getting upwards of $75 M in fewer years.
The key here is that it’s still very early. Polanco just wrapped up his first full season in the majors. By comparison, Marte signed an extension before Spring Training in his second full season in the majors. McCutchen signed his deal during Spring Training of his third full season. On those same timelines, a Polanco extension would happen either this Spring or next Spring.
Right now it might actually benefit him to wait it out another year. If the hard-hit numbers are legit, and carry over to next year, he will have a much better overall 2016 season than he did in 2015. That would lead to more guaranteed money, and the potential for more money overall in a shorter time span. The risk is that he might not break out, and might see those numbers go the opposite way. But the signs are encouraging enough for Polanco that it wouldn’t be a bad decision if he rolled the dice one more year.
That doesn’t mean the Pirates can’t try to extend him. It would make a lot of sense to do that this off-season, even if they’re paying for future performance that isn’t quite guaranteed at this point. They could pay a bit more than his current numbers are worth, and still get a potential value in the future if he does break out. There’s still some risk involved in extending him, but I still think he’s a guy they need for the long-term.
If it doesn’t happen this year, I wouldn’t count it out completely, as a lot of players wait until their final league minimum year for an extension. The fact that there was so much talk between the two sides about an extension shows there is interest in the subject. And usually when there is that kind of interest, a deal eventually gets done.
Overall, I’d be surprised if Polanco ends up only under control through the 2020 season. Whether an extension happens this off-season or next off-season, I’m guessing it will eventually go down, just like it did with McCutchen and Marte.