When the Pirates reported to spring training in February, it was clear who was expected to run the offense: outfielder Gregory Polanco and first baseman Josh Bell. So far, the offense has been volatile, but on the whole, better than expected, even without much help from Bell or Polanco. They haven ?t done much to buck this current losing streak, either, with Bell recording a .558 OPS and Polanco a .519 since May 18 — the start of this downward slope.
That only tells part of the story. These two have been among the worst players in the National League. Here are the lowest fWAR totals of every player with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title entering play Monday:
Polanco has the fourth lowest WAR in the senior circuit, and Bell isn ?t that far behind. Polanco has the most guaranteed money of any contract on the team, and Bell ?s $5 million signing bonus was a contributing factor to baseball capping draft pick money. The Pirates have invested more in these two than any other position player, but that doesn ?t mean anything is guaranteed. It may be time to seriously consider their future with the club.
Let ?s start with Polanco. He started hot, but has been considerably worse since then. I ?ve written about the holes in his swing before, and the Pirates seem to be trying to combat that by backing him away from the plate while in the batter ?s box. It hasn ?t helped much, as his wRC+ has dipped to 95 and he hasn ?t homered in a month.
Meanwhile, Austin Meadows has been one of the best hitters in baseball since he got the call to The Show. Meadows ? promotion was uncharacteristically aggressive for the Pirates. They still retain the extra year of control, but it will likely be an extra year of arbitration. That ?s going to be significantly more expensive over the course of his tenure, not just because of an additional one year payout, but because he ?ll earn three raises off that initial salary rather than two. It ?s way too early to project what Meadows could make in arbitration, but let ?s just say him being a Super Two will net him an additional $10 million in his time as a Pirate. If that sounds unreasonable, pick a different number and follow this formula.
The Pirates could turn that extra year of control into a pre-arb salary if Meadows was in the minors for another month. (In reality, it ?s probably less than a month, but again, let ?s round down to make sure.) That one month will cost the Pirates $10 million (or whatever amount you so chose). That ?s basically like having a $60 million annual salary on your roster for one month. Now Meadows obviously shouldn ?t be demoted just to save a buck, but he can ?t just be a semi-starter. He needs to play every day. A $60 million salary is no good on the bench. Polanco ?s remaining guaranteed money is only half that amount, and that ?s spread out over four years. His potential dead money is much easier to absorb.
Let ?s move on to Bell. He finished third in the rookie of the year voting last year, but he was a sub-1 WAR player with a barely above average 108 wRC+. He ?s taken a huge step back this year, recording the second lowest OPS among qualified NL first basemen (.686 upon writing Monday). I ?ve also written about Bell ?s problems, the core being his inconsistency in repeating mechanics. That hasn ?t changed.
He doesn ?t have any direct competition at first base, but I think there are two players who could threaten his incumbency if they change positions. The first is Colin Moran, who is having a solid rookie campaign at the hot corner. Unfortunately for him, the man he replaced is back in AAA. Jung-Ho Kang, in spite of anyone ?s moral objections, is only one step away from the majors again. There isn ?t a clear place for him to play. A Moran-Kang platoon could work, but the rookie may be better suited shifting across the diamond. Moran has the glove to play the position and his limited range may play better there.
If the Pirates want to get more creative, getting Francisco Cervelli some starts at first base might do him good. There are three basic reasons why Cervelli is having a career year at the plate. He’s changed his stance, standing more upright in the set position rather than crouching like he did before. The second is his conditioning, changing his diet and treating his ?Ferrari ? body better.
The third– and perhaps most important– is he is healthy. Catchers take a lot of abuse, and Cervelli gets more than his fair share. Why subject your best hitter to that? His most recent malady– a foul ball to the jaw Saturday– hasn ?t landed him on the DL yet. It did, however, force the club to call up catcher Jacob Stallings from AAA as insurance, so all is not well.
Bell may have the higher ceiling, but if the Pirates hope to compete, they need to get their better hitters more playing time. Elias Diaz has produced more WAR in just 90 plate appearances than Bell has in his major league career. Stallings has almost the same amount of career WAR in over 1,000 fewer plate appearances. This is, in a word, troublesome.
These logjams could be solved by the trade deadline if the Pirates are unable to buck this month long slide. Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison and Corey Dickerson are all quality trade chips. Right now, the Pirates look like sellers. That could create a low pressure situation and unchallenged work opportunities for Bell and Polanco. But is that necessarily a good thing?
They still both have high ceilings, but the rose-tinted glasses need to come off eventually. Where is the line between ?potential building block going through a sophomore slump ? and ?this guy is doing worse than the fossilized remains of Albert Pujols Going into this year, it looked like the Pirates could not win without these two. Now it looks like they might be better if they were in a reduced role.