When I told Kevin to leave the Friday slot open for me, I was hoping to write about Opening Day. Detroit ?s weather system had other plans. They ?ll try again today, but that doesn ?t help me much today, does it, rain?
What say you, Steven Brault?
My grandkids: Grandpaps what was your first opening day like?
— Steven Brault (@SquidBrault) March 29, 2018
Well said, Steven.
Fortunately for me, I was given a last second post idea Wednesday night while recording an episode of the Locked on Pirates debate show ?Cannonballs ? with Kevin. (I totally kicked his ass.) One of the topics we went back and forth on was which player NEEDS to have a big season if the Pirates want to compete, or at the very least finish .500.
For me, it ?s a no-brainer. The Pirates need to replace McCutchen ?s production. Nobody else has a higher ceiling and more room to grow this year than Gregory Polanco.
Polanco was supposed to be the final piece of the dream outfield, but injuries and a steep learning curve have killed a lot of the buzz around him. I still think he can be that All-Star level player that the Pirates and scouts dreamed he could be, but 2018 is a ?put up or shut up ? year for him. Austin Meadows should be major league ready either later this year or in early 2019. Adam Frazier is well liked in the organization and without a starting job. The Pirates want to stick with Polanco, but they don ?t need to anymore.
Polanco may have some guaranteed money coming his way, but his guaranteed starting job could come into question soon. He looks healthy, and he opened up to Stephen Nesbitt on how he ?s trying to combat the injury bug. Like Cervelli, Taillon and Marte, just staying on the field will probably be half the battle for him this year.
With the momentum of a great spring behind him, this just might be his year. That could be good news for the Pirates, because these last two years, they have only been as good as Polanco has been.
Let ?s start with 2016. The whole season was the Pirates ? worst case scenario. McCutchen, Cole and Liriano alone were worth 12 fewer WAR for the Bucs than they did in 2015. Melancon went to Washington. Niese and Locke were dumpster fires. They really shouldn ?t have been anywhere near the playoff picture.
Despite all that, they were only a half game out of a wild card on Aug. 28. Polanco was a big reason why, combining a good glove with his best season at the plate to look like the 3 or 4 WAR player he could be. Here are his season stats on Aug. 28:
.274/.340/.502, 20 HR, 76 RBI, 121 wRC+
And here he is from Aug. 29 through the end of the season:
.196/.250/.308, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 48 wRC+
The Pirates went 11-22 to close out the campaign. Polanco didn ?t do much to help, playing roughly at replacement level and recording a wRC+ of just 48 over the last five weeks. He probably would have not been enough to carry them to the playoffs, but a strong finish could have been enough for them to steal a couple more games and finish above .500.
The same thing happened in 2017. From opening day to July 3rd, Polanco produced at a 79 wRC+ clip. The Pirates were a fairly poor team to then, but something clicked July 4. They rattled off a 12-2 record and climbed back into the division race. Polanco lead the charge for those two weeks:
.380/.392/.640, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 170 wRC+
Granted, this was over a sample size of 50 at-bats, but it ?s a nice taste of what he can do.
But Polanco of course was hurt again at the tail end of that stretch and the wheels fell off the hype train. When he finally limped back to action, he could only muster a .531 OPS, cementing the Pirates ? drop to mediocrity.
We ?ve seen flashes of what Polanco can do at the plate. Same goes for him in the field. Shoulder injuries have limited his arm strength these last two years, and last season ?s position change to left did not go so well, either.
Despite that, he has been a plus defender these last three seasons and has quietly asserted himself as one of the best defensive right fielders. Of right fielders who have recorded at least 2,500 innings in the field since 2015, Polanco ?s 19 defensive runs saved are fifth overall.
While the bulk of those DRS came in 2015, he may be a better overall defender today. Going by the metric UZR/150 (which measures how many runs he projects to save over 150 games), Polanco has trended upwards in right field every season from his rookie campaign: from -6.7 in 2014, 7.5 in 2015, 8.4 in 2016 and 9.1 last year. He ?s running better routes and playing different situations better. If he ?s improving every year despite being constantly injured, imagine the jump he could make if he stays healthy.
The Pirates have huge shoes to fill with McCutchen gone. Heck, those shoes were so big that Cutch himself couldn ?t fill them these past two years. Marte could return to All-Star form and Josh Bell could take a giant leap forward, but Marte ?s value is likely going to take a hit now that he ?s playing in center and can ?t rack up as much defensive WAR, and Bell was streaky throughout his rookie season.
It may have to be Polanco who carries this team. He can rack up the defensive WAR faster than anyone else, and if he has some protection in the lineup, we ?ve seen flashes of him being able to mash at the dish. And if he can ?t bring it all together this year, he may not get a chance to do it next year.