The Pirates and Gregory Polanco are in extension talks for a second spring in a row. Last year, the team and player tried to work out a deal before the top prospect even made his debut. This time around, the 23-year old outfielder has a little experience under his belt, enough that he’s no longer a rookie.
However, his first 300 plate appearances didn’t create any additional clarity of his valuation, and they certainly didn’t help Polanco’s bargaining position. Over a full season, he’d have accumulated 0.6 WAR according to Fangraphs. Not damning by any stretch of the imagination. Plenty of players have struggled out of the gate only to achieve great success later, but not many have received huge contract extensions based on those performances either.
Consider two relatively recent contract extensions dished out by the Pirates very early in a player’s tenure with the team. Last year, Starling Marte signed a 6 yr/$31 million deal with guaranteed money into his first year of free agency and team options for the next two seasons. In 2011, Jose Tabata signed a 6 yr/$15 million deal that bought out his pre-arbitration and arbitration years, while setting up options for his first three years of free agency that had been viewed as extremely team-friendly. Both players outperformed Polanco by a fairly substantial margin in the earliest stages of their careers with both amassing 2 WAR by the time the ink dried on their contracts. Polanco has 0.3 WAR and a reassignment to the minors.
So how do you value Polanco right now? I think it depends on your baseline used to project his expected year-to-year growth. His age 23*, 0.6 full season WAR seems like one starting point. Since Polanco is all about projection, you could also look at his age 24 season projection. Steamer has his 2015 at a modest 0.8 WAR, while ZIPS believes he’ll take steps down the path to super stardom at 3.2 WAR in his first full season. While there is a wide gap in potential performance, both seem like they could reasonably happen. A fourth option would be to take the average of all of the above giving him 1.6 WAR for the upcoming season.
* Keep in mind, this is not his traditional July 1 cut off date age 23 season. To run our projections, a player age is determined by the highest age a player plays at during a season.
Using the results from the TPOP study on aging, here is what you could expect performance wise from Polanco along the normal growth curve at each baseline WAR:
If you thought expectations for 2015 were all over the map check out his peak year in 2020! The Pirates aren’t going to give out a contract for Polanco that assumes five consecutive 6 WAR seasons. Even the average seems a little high. Likewise, Polanco isn’t going to accept one that presumes he’s not even a league average player. Further, I doubt the Pirates would even try to extend him if they felt he was that fringy.
Regardless of value, the first three years will play out much the same in any deal and really won’t change the overall value of it. If he signed tomorrow, I suspect he would get a signing bonus around two million dollars with a base salary of five hundred thousand for the rest of 2015, just as Starling Marte did. The 2016 and 2017 seasons would likely yield a combined salary of around two and a half million. While he’s going to get paid in pre-arb above the average, the Pirates and other organizations have paid increased salary and signing bonus in these years as an advance on future earnings. Anything over the standard $1.5 million awarded during this time will likely come off future earnings. Regardless of how well you expect him to play, Polanco should see $4.5 million front loaded into the first three years of his deal.
As for the rest of the deal, the total value depends on years and whether or not Polanco and the Pirates can come together on a reasonable valuation. The best I’ll be able to do is determine a range.
The above chart shows the wide range of salary possibilities for the wide range of performance outcomes for Gregory Polanco, assuming normal development and the determined value of $6M/WAR. It seems doubtful that the Pirates would reward him now with superstar money expressed at the ZIPS level when you consider they didn’t give the superstar contract to Marte who actually showed that potential in the majors when he was extended. It’s also unlikely that Polanco would accept a salary based entirely on his 2014 performance. If a deal were to be worked out, it will likely fall between the Steamer projections and the Average of the three. Even then, the average deal seems a bit high, especially when securing an additional year of control. Based on previous early career deals, it will probably guarantee money through the end of arbitration and maybe lock up one year of free agency. If the two parties come together, you could expect six years for $20-27 million or seven years for $29-40 million. Any higher than that, and it’s difficult to imagine terms being agreed to even if the Average projection suggests it could be higher.
One thing the Pirates shouldn’t count on is Polanco accepting the cheap team controlled options others have. The Pirates might get one, but while they’ve managed to nab some inexpensive control, it doesn’t seem likely on every extension. If Polanco is expecting a bigger deal than the one signed by Marte, he’s still got some proving to do. If he wants to the security of life altering guaranteed money for the first time in his career, he’ll need to take a deal that may appear team-friendly. At the end of the day, both sides are taking a risk by sealing a deal now. Polanco might leave some money on the table, but the Pirates are betting big on a fairly unknown commodity. Higher profile prospects than Polanco have busted.