In signing Gregory Polanco to an extension yesterday, the Pittsburgh Pirates continued to beef up their reputation as early deciders.
In identifying talent early and then deciding on how that talent might develop, the club prides itself on manufacturing certainty. Make no mistake, Polanco’s extension is a matter of cost control. In locking up the right fielder while he is still pre-arbitration eligible, general manager Neal Huntington has a level of certainty in his outfield that breeds jealousy in many other Major League Baseball general managers.
What did Huntington and his staff identify in Polanco that pushed them towards the extension?
First, they saw the tools. Polanco is billed as a four, and possibly five, tool player. Though prone to occasional lapses, the young right fielder can impact a game in a myriad of ways. Polanco stole 27 bases and crossed home plate 83 times. He ranked tied for third in all of baseball with 13 outfield assists.
Though he had only nine home runs, he racked 35 doubles, showing an ability to drive the ball to find gaps. Despite struggling against left-handed pitching, Polanco ended the year with a .255 batting average, a figure that does not fully show how well he can hit. Despite some of these perceived shortcomings, Polanco was a 2.3 win player in 2015, thanks chiefly to his varied toolset.
Second, they saw progress in key metrics. “El Coffee” took great strides in his first full year in the majors. While still saddled with a long, looping swing, Polanco lowered his strikeout rate to 18.6 percent, showing a great ability to adjust to major league-level pitching. His 8.4 percent walk rate was good for third on a team that was somewhat walk-adverse. These figures work hand-in-hand to paint a picture of a maturing hitter.
Third, Huntington took an honest look at where this team is headed and how Polanco could fit that burgeoning vision.
Much has been made about the Pirates’ new approach to lineup construction and run creation philosophy. The ideology was on full display in yesterday’s opener, with contact, hit-and-runs and quality at-bats taking center stage. With few prospects in their timeline serving as pure power-threats, the team is beginning to instill the new mindset in the 2016 season. Polanco is a natural representation of this trend.
The tools outlined above show that Polanco can be used at several impactful spots in the batting order. In keeping him toward the bottom half, manager Clint Hurdle can use the right-fielder to keep pressure on opposing pitchers. With more quality at-bats in store behind him, Polanco can have great effect in hit-and-run scenarios, or he can positively impact the at-bats of those behind him by simply posing as the stolen base threat that he is. Polanco can also moonlight at the top of the order, as he showed in 2015 with some effectiveness. As he matures into his power stroke, Polanco can then be inserted into a traditional RBI spot if needed.
The picture that is painted of Gregory Polanco is one of flexibility. For a club that is going through radical change in real time, that flexibility is almost quintessential.
In developing certainty around a player who can serve as such a wild-card, Neal Huntington and staff can now begin the exciting task of maximizing Polanco’s effectiveness.
Even if it’s not quite clear yet how that might look yet.