PITTSBURGH – Today was a great day for the Pirates, and for Pirates fans.
First of all, it was Opening Day, which is always a great day. No more discussing the same three topics every day of the off-season for six months. No more trying to analyze meaningless Spring Training stats. Everything counts, and you finally get to see what the team is capable of.
The Pirates capitalized on Opening Day with a win over the Cardinals. The NL Central is going to be difficult this year, so each and every win against the Cardinals and the Cubs will help. In this case, the win was great, but so was the fact that there were several highlights from the game, like a strong outing from Francisco Liriano, and good first impressions from new guys like John Jaso, David Freese, and Neftali Feliz.
Part of that victory was due to the Pirates further embracing advanced statistics. They’ve optimized their lineup, and prioritized a high on-base percentage over more power from lesser hitters. They started to move away from traditional bullpen roles, allowing Tony Watson to pitch in the seventh inning when it made more sense for him to go, rather than chaining him to the eighth inning.
The focus to move away from traditional lineup and bullpen usage, towards more modern and statistically improved methods is not only a good thing tonight, but a good thing for the entire 2016 season.
And then there was the big news tonight.
Winning an Opening Day contest against a division rival, and watching a team embrace methods that will make them better the entire season would have been enough. But then the news broke that the Pirates had extended Gregory Polanco, gaining team control through the 2023 season.
The Opening Day win was good for the day. The new strategy is good for the year. But the Polanco news could be good for several years. As in, Polanco could be teammates with players the Pirates haven’t even drafted yet. He could still be a Pirate and watch some of the prospects currently in Triple-A walk as free agents.
None of that matters if he doesn’t live up to the contract. But it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine him living up to the deal. In his first full season in the majors, he posted a 2.3 WAR. This was mostly due to speed and defense, as the offense hadn’t really taken off yet. And I say “yet”, because I think the offense will take off, and started taking off in the second half last year.
Polanco saw his hard hit rate increase in the second half of the season, with his numbers improving in July and August. They dropped down in September, when he was dealing with a knee injury. He also maintained the hard hit balls, but ran into some poor luck where a lot of his shots were going right to fielders. That combination hid what was otherwise a nice second half for the youngest player on the current Pirates’ roster.
He picked up where he left off today, smoking two balls at 109 and 112 MPH off the bat. Those results with harder hit balls will mean more hits, more extra base hits, and strong overall numbers. Polanco started showing this tendency in 2015, and the very small sample size of Opening Day this year suggests he is carrying the hard hit trend over to this season.
The Pirates got Polanco for $35 M guaranteed over five years, plus two option years. At worst, this deal is $7 M per year, which is the cost of one WAR per year. Polanco can easily beat that, without seeing any offensive improvements. His total contract value could end up at over $60 M for seven years, which again is something he can justify with his current production.
There’s a good chance Polanco could break out this year, which makes the timing of this deal huge. I don’t know what the Pirates would have had to pay to extend Polanco next year, but I’m guessing it would have been about double the guaranteed money, and maybe even fewer years.
As for the overall impact, they’re getting a good player under team control for seven years, and the maximum price will be just over $60 M. Granted, some of this includes his four remaining cost controlled years, which drives the value down. But Polanco has a chance to be more than just a good player. He could be a star player, which means his first three free agent years might have otherwise been worth more than his total contract value now.
On the flip side of this, it definitely makes sense for Polanco to sign this deal. He received just $150,000 for his signing bonus in 2009. He played for next to nothing in the minors for the next five years, making a minor league salary, which is usually less than $10,000 per year in the lowest levels, and less than $5,000 per year in the DSL. He was added to the 40-man roster in 2014, and added to the big league club that year. He made the league minimum last year, and will make that again this year.
Overall, Polanco has made a little less than $1 M so far in his career. While every extension is met with the idea that future stardom is guaranteed, the reality is that things can go wrong. If Polanco can go from earning less than $1 M in his career, to earning $35 M guaranteed, then that’s a win for him, even if he’s leaving money on the table in the long run.
The Pirates beat the Cardinals today. They started implementing strategies to help win more games. And they locked up their youngest player at what could be the perfect time for such an extension, right before a potential breakout season.
You can’t ask for a better Opening Day in Pittsburgh than that.
**Today we started our 2016 regular season coverage. I’ll be in Pittsburgh for the rest of this series, then will head over to Altoona for a five game stretch. That will be followed by a home series down in Bradenton, and a road trip to West Virginia at the end of April. I’ll wrap up my first half coverage in Indianapolis in mid-May, followed by the Pirates in Puerto Rico and Miami at the end of May. Plus, we’ll have writers in every city providing additional coverage, meaning we’ll have at least two people reporting on every team in the first half. You can get all of this coverage by subscribing to the site at our extremely low subscription prices.
**Gregory Polanco Reportedly Agrees to Contract Extension. The breakdown of the deal, along with some other thoughts on the move.
**Pirates Notes: Francisco Liriano’s Gem Leads Pirates to First Win Over Cardinals. Sean McCool and I recapped the biggest stories from today’s home opener.
**Pirates Are Going Against Tradition to Squeeze Every Win Out of The 2016 Club. My pre-game story, looking at some of the ways the Pirates are trying to get every extra win out of this team.
**Pirates Make Final Roster Moves for Opening Day. The final moves to set the Opening Day roster, with a writeup by Sean.