When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Gregory Polanco to a long-term extension in April of 2016 , it was universally lauded. Much like Neal Huntington did with Starling Marte two years earlier, the Pirates’ GM was able to lock down a homegrown potential star for very team-friendly prices.
But with a long contract for ‘Pirate expensive’ dollars comes great expectations from the fanbase. It certainly didn’t help that Gregory Polanco was trumpeted for a few years as The Next Big Thing, culminating with a ranking of being the 10th best prospect by Baseball America heading into the 2014 season. Many people expect that every prospect ranked in the top 10 should be ticketed to Cooperstown, or at the very least be a perennial All-Star with some top 5 MVP finishes mixed in. In reality, just being a pretty good player is a very desirous outcome.
And to date, that’s what Gregory Polanco has been — pretty good. His last two years have seen him post WAR’s of 2.3 and 2.5. This season has been a disappointment to date, with Polanco’s WAR dipping to 0.8 and in danger of taking him below the 2.0 WAR threshold that defines what is a ‘typical’ major league output. But pretty good wasn’t good enough for many Pirate fans. And Polanco’s 2017 campaign has caused many fans, probably some teammates, and most likely his manager and general manager, to tear their collective hair out. People forgive players (most of the time) if the results are not there, but the effort is. At times this year, Polanco’s effort has not been there.
The most maddening part is that Gregory Polanco flashes all his prodigious gifts at times on the baseball field. But rarely have all those gifts been on display at the same time. One night the arm might be there, but the bat is silent. Or the blazing speed is present, but the baseball IQ has taken the night off. Monday night against the Brewers was a somewhat rare occasion when all the tools were present at the same time and it was a sight to behold. Polanco went 4-4 with 2 doubles, 2 RBI, and that cannon shot to gun a player out at the plate.
“Why can’t Polanco do that all the time?” was the collective response to his effort on Monday. Polanco has the tools to carry a team for stretches at a time. In July so far, he has done just that, as he’s batted .438/.460/.688 (1148 OPS, 203 wRC+). Most of that work has been done in the 6th spot of the batting order, the same spot that revived Andrew McCutchen in late May and into June. There’s a line parodying hack comedians saying if the black box on a plane can survive a plane crash, why don’t they build the whole plane out of black box material? I’m starting to think that’s true of the 6th spot in the Pirate batting order — why can’t Hurdle just pencil everyone into the 6th spot?
THE NUMBERS BEHIND POLANCO’S CONTRACT
Polanco’s contract from this season forward is as such, with his $3M signing bonus prorated throughout the term of the deal:
- 2017 — $1.6M
- 2018 — $4.1M
- 2019 — $6.1M
- 2020 — $8.6M
- 2021 — $11.6M
- Team option 2022 — $12.5M
- Team option 2023 — $13.5M
With the cost of 1 WAR approximately $8M on the free agent market this past season, it’s pretty easy to see that with even minimal contributions Gregory Polanco can justify this deal. But the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t just break even on their contracts. In order for them to have hope on contention, they need their players to outperform their deals on a dollar per WAR basis, most likely by a factor of 3 in order to break even competitively with bigger spenders.
Clearly, Polanco is going to far outperform his baseball-meager $1.6M salary this year, even if he clocks in under 2.0 WAR. Let’s say he finishes around 1.5 WAR. His free agent worth would be around $12M, so he’s outperformed his salary by a factor of 7.5. With the bump in salary next year, all the way up to ‘free agent utility player salary’, he could still have a 1.5 WAR and outstrip his salary by a factor of 3. Keep in mind that the rule of thumb is that the $/WAR escalates by 5% each successive year. So in 2021, when the cost for 1 WAR on the market is roughly $9.7M, Gregory Polanco needs to produce about 3.6 WAR to meet that ‘factor of 3’ threshold I’ve established for the Pirates to be successful.
That number is well within his threshold, especially if he can start to harness his myriad of talents into one cohesive season. It’s been said that the loss of Starling Marte this year to his PED suspension has left Polanco rudderless on the team without his best friend. While that doesn’t speak well of Polanco’s mental toughness, if true, it could explain why Polanco is heating up around the same time Marte has come back to the team. With the two of them under contract for the short and medium term future, I hope that their symbiotic relationship continues to flourish, both for their own personal sakes and the Pirates on-field fortunes.