No matter what happens, Gregory Polanco is going to be a very interesting case study for how nothing is guaranteed with prospects or young players, even as they are young players with a few years into their career.
Polanco broke out in 2012, and started becoming one of the top prospects in the game in the years to follow. He was dynamic, with tools that you could dream on, and star upside. He had lower risk than most prospects, with a good walk rate, a low strikeout rate, and some power, with more likely on the way due to his tall, lanky frame. He had speed, and the potential for strong defense, with one of the best outfield arms in the system.
He had it all.
So far in his major league career, Polanco has topped out at a 2.4 WAR player. You take that from a prospect every year, since there are many alternatives that are much worse. Polanco was slightly over a 2 WAR in his first two full seasons in the majors, and each year provided hope that there was more to come.
For example, he saw an increase in his power in 2016. That came after he showed up for the season in much better physical shape, with more muscle added to that big frame. A guy that was once described as looking like a sick giraffe was now looking like he could be on the verge of being a legit impact player. Things started out that way in 2016, but Polanco faded late in the season, likely due to the injuries he had at the end of the year.
The hope was that he would finally break out in 2017 and become that impact player everyone was waiting on. Unfortunately, the 2017 season was a more extreme version of what happened in 2016.
Polanco showed a lot of positive signs. He did start off slow in April, with a .671 OPS. However, he had a .900 OPS in May. He had a 1.035 OPS in July. But he was under .600 every other month. Let’s break that down further.
It’s hard to say if the struggles in April were due to a standard slow start, or an injury. It’s worth noting that Polanco had a sore right groin, which sidelined him for a few games in the middle of April.
He started heating up in May, but went down for a few weeks in the middle of the month with a left hamstring injury. When he returned, he continued hitting well, with two homers in his first three games back. However, the fourth game back saw him leave with an ankle injury.
Polanco missed a few days, but didn’t go on the disabled list with his ankle injury. When he returned, he started to slump at the start of June. He broke out of that a bit as the month went on, with a .742 OPS in the second half of June. That carried over to his huge month of July, which unfortunately was ended with another injury.
On July 22nd, Polanco went on the disabled list for the second time with a left hamstring issue. He was running the bases by August 1st, and activated on August 2nd. He struggled in his return, then went back on the disabled list on August 15th with the same issue, after leaving the game on August 12th.
This time his break was much longer. He didn’t run the bases until September 6th, and was activated from the DL on September 8th. He didn’t really hit well in September, up until the final week of the season when he had an .814 OPS.
There’s a lot of arbitrary endpoints here. A lot of injuries where we don’t know how much those injuries impacted performance. Hot streaks were we don’t know if that’s the real Polanco trying to shine through. Slumps where we don’t know if that’s also the real Polanco showing inconsistencies with no other factors.
I’m not trying to make a point here about his performance or say what version of Polanco you should expect. I am saying that, because of the constant injuries, we don’t really have an answer as to what we can expect from Polanco, or what type of player he can be going forward. The safest guess is to say he’ll continue to be inconsistent as long as these small, nagging injuries keep derailing him.
I’d hesitate to say that Polanco will be as bad as he was this year going forward. If this year was a product of the injuries hitting at the worst times, then I don’t expect that to continue. He played two years before this where he had 652 and 587 plate appearances, respectively. That’s kind of misleading, because he was playing through injuries in the final months of both of those years. But he had over a 2 WAR for the entire season each time.
I’m also hesitant to say that Polanco will go above that 2.1-2.4 WAR range that we saw the previous two years. That’s not a safe thing to say with his injury history.
At the same time, Polanco just turned 26 a month ago. We’re not in the age range where he still has loads of upside and can be chalked up to being a young player. But we’re also far from his decline, which means we might not have seen the best from him.
What I will say is that Polanco remains an enigma. He remains a guy where anything can happen, whether that’s a half a win player due to way too many injury issues, or an average player due to injuries or inconsistencies, or somehow he finds a way to reach his impact upside. He might be the most essential player to the Pirates going forward, since he has the potential to show more improvements than almost any other player on the roster.
The Pirates have him under control for the long-term. He’s signed through 2021, with options for 2022 and 2023. His highest contract value is $13.5 M as an option in 2023. By that point, 1 WAR might be worth $12-13 M on the open market, so the 2+ WAR upside we’ve seen from him so far would still be worth the deal.
For now, he’s extremely cheap for the production and the promise that he shows. He’s making $3.5 M in 2018, $5.5 in 219, and doesn’t top $10 M until 2021. A guy in his situation who comes with obvious risks, but still has a lot of upside, is a value at those prices. The Pirates can only hope the gamble pays off, or that he at least returns to 2015-16 levels of performance, since Polanco will be essential to them contending in the long-term.