Recently, Gregory Polanco has made it known that he would be open to discussing a long-term contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. A deal was discussed in Spring Training last year, but apparently fell through over the number of option years and how they would be triggered, probably meaning that Polanco wanted them all activated at one time and the Pirates wanted to go one option year at a time.
But what would the framework of a Polanco deal look like? First, let’s lay out a few basic ground rules:
- The Pirates always strive to not only buy out at least one free agent year, but also have multiple options on additional free agent years
- The Pirates seem to have an internal decision tree once a player hits age-32
- Polanco does not have much pre-existing financial security, as his signing bonus was only $75,000 — a chunk of which probably went to his buscone
- The Pirates like to get good deals on these contracts
The contract to use as a template is the Starling Marte long-term deal of 6 year/$31M guaranteed. As a refresher, here are the pertinent details of salary year-by-year (via Cot’s Contracts). In parentheses is the year of team control that Marte would have been under had he not signed the deal.
- $2M signing bonus
- 2014 — $0.5M (pre-arb 2)
- 2015 — $1M (pre-arb 3)
- 2016 — $3M (arb 1)
- 2017 — $5M (arb 2)
- 2018 — $7.5M (arb 3)
- 2019 — $10M (free agent 1)
- 2020 — $11.5M option/$2M buyout (free agent 2)
- 2021 — $12.5M option/$1M buyout (free agent 3)
When Marte signed this deal in the spring of 2014, he was coming off of a very strong platform season in 2013. His line from 2013 was as follows:
.280 AVG/.343 OBP/441 SLG (784 OPS), 122 wRC+ (22% more offense generated than avg player), 4.8 WAR, 12 HR/41 SB
To be honest, Marte sold himself short on this deal. Were it not for the McCutchen contract, this Marte deal would be the biggest bargain on the Pirates. Marte has followed that 2013 season up with a 4.4 WAR in 2014 and 3.6 WAR in 2015, with (surprisingly) his defensive metrics dragging his overall WAR down.
In contrast, Polanco is coming off of a much weaker potential platform season in 2015 for potential long-term contract discussions:
.256 AVG/.320 OBP/.381 SLG (701 OPS), 94 wRC+ (6% less offense than avg player), 2.3 WAR, 9 HR/27 SB
Marte’s platform season was his age-24 season and Polanco’s was his age-23 season, so they are relatively close in the development curve. The big issue with Polanco, though, is that all parties feel that there are a few more levels of untapped potential within him. So Polanco’s representatives are going to be selling his peak-potential, while the Pirates are going to be building off of his modest 2015 season that showed some flaws in his game (his inability to hit lefties, primarily).
Keeping Polanco’s 2015 season line in mind, let’s try and find some comparable players that recently went through arbitration to see what Polanco could expect to get, if he never signed a deal. This will box in the basic parameters of a deal and then the two sides can tweak from there.
Using MLB Trade Rumors Arbitration Tracker from 2015, there were three outfielders that were in arbitration-1 that were roughly comparable to Polanco: Dominic Brown, Lorenzo Cain, and JD Martinez. Martinez had a huge platform year in 2014, but had a very non-descript career prior. He was awarded $3M. Dominic Brown was awarded $2.6M for 2015, but it was more based upon his huge 2013 campaign, with all the rest of his years being sub-par.
Lorenzo Cain is the best comparable player to Polanco, as Cain’s steady profile of single digit homers and double digit steals, coupled with solid baserunning and defensive components, most mirrors Polanco. Cain was awarded $2.725M for 2015, then went on to have a monster year last year with a line of .307/.361/.477, 16 HR/28 SB, a 129 wRC+, and 6.6 WAR. To me, this represents peak-Polanco. To account for some slight salary inflation by the time he gets to 2018, I’m allocating $3.0M for Polanco’s arb-1 year.
As you progress through the arbitration tracker for last year, there are fewer and fewer viable comparables. This makes sense because if a player is good enough to keep going through arb with a team, they have most likely tried to lock him up. If a player goes year-to-year, there’s a good chance that he’s just a spare piece in danger of being non-tendered at any time. Naturally, there are some players that go year-to-year (Scott Boras clients) until they get to free agency.
However, Jon Jay represents a fairly decent arb-2 comparable for Polanco. Jay’s 2014 line heading into arbitration last year was .303/.372/.378, 3 HR/6 SB, 115 wRC+, 2.4 WAR. For this, and the rest of his body of work to that point, Jay was awarded $4.55M, which was later incorporated into a small extension. I’m going to use $4.75M for Polanco’s arb-2 year.
There were actual three interesting players that went to arb-3 last year that could be viewed as three possible outcomes for Polanco’s career: Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, and Gerardo Parra. Fowler represents Polanco if he gets a better on-base percentage, but doesn’t progress much with his power. Fowler’s defense is nowhere near Polanco’s level, which has suppressed Fowler’s WAR totals over the years, but he’s been a consistent 2 WAR player. Fowler received $9.5M last year and then proceeded to have his best year in 2015 heading into free agency.
Austin Jackson received $7.7M based off of his early-career stats. Jackson has regressed in recent years, but he still compiled enough stats to get paid well. Jackson is a free agent, but isn’t considered a strong starter.
Gerardo Parra represents Polanco’s career if the bat doesn’t progress, but Polanco still is strong on defense and baserunning. Parra’s career wRC+ is 93, but his defense and baserunning components have buoyed his WAR totals, much like Polanco last year. Parra received a 3 year/$26M deal from the Rockies recently in free agency.
To account for these ranges, I just averaged them to get $7.8M. Again, accounting for inflation, I assigned $8M to Polanco’s arb-3 year.
Free Agent Years
This gets real tricky because now we’re trying to forecast what the going rate for free agents may be in 2021 and beyond. But these long-term deals are done by players for financial security. When they sign them, they don’t want to wait for markets to fluctuate or their performance to suffer. They are content to leave money on the table in the future for a known quantity now.
With Parra signing a deal for an average rate of $8.67M and a recently injured Denard Span signing a deal with an average salary of $10.33M, I’m comfortable assigning $10.5M to Polanco in this exercise. Assuming the Pirates want that first free agent year, plus two option years, let’s go $10.5M/$11.5M/$12.5M on three years.
Polanco’s Potential Contract
Pulling all this together, using Marte’s contract as a template with bonuses and buyouts, plus all the machinations we just went through, we’re left with:
- $2M signing bonus
- 2016 — $0.75M (pre-arb 2)
- 2017 — $1.25M (pre-arb 3)
- 2018 — $3M (arb-1)
- 2019 — $4.75M (arb-2)
- 2020 — $8M (arb-3)
- 2021 — $10.5M (free agent 1)
- 2022 — $11.5M option/$1.5M buyout (free agent 2)
- 2023 — $12.5M option/$1M buyout (free agent 3)
All together, that’s a 6 year/$32.75M deal that could turn into an 8 year/$54.25M if both the options are picked up through his age-31 season. It is strikingly similar to Marte’s deal, which should again underline how big of a steal that deal is for the Pirates. Would I do this deal? I think I would. Polanco has a few extra gears left in his game, but he’s not going to turn into McCutchen in my estimation. But if he could be an equivalent type of player to Marte, this deal would be worth it, especially based on what salaries may escalate to in the future. It’s a risk for both parties, but it’s one worth taking.