Gregory Polanco is the best prospect that I can remember the Pirates having. This is a strong statement given some of the talent that has come through the Pirates’ system in recent years, but it’s not hyperbole. It shouldn’t be misunderstood, either: Andrew McCutchen is a far better MLB player than his time as a prospect would’ve ever suggested. When he came up in 2009 it seemed more likely that he’d be a Carl Crawford type player than the 155 wRC+ offensive monster that he’s grown into. I mention that for two reasons: The first is that while I say that Polanco is the best prospect I remember the Pirates having, he’d still be lucky to turn into an Andrew McCutchen-caliber player. The second is one that everyone’s familiar with: prospects are just that. You don’t have to look any further than McCutchen or Pedro Alvarez or “Neil Walker, Second Baseman” or “Gerrit Cole, Control Pitcher that Sometimes Struggles to Generate Swings and Misses (at least for now, please start turning into Justin Verlander any day, please, Gerrit Cole).”
Polanco hasn’t diverted from his direct beeline to PNC Park since he was beamed out of a spaceship and onto McKechnie Field to turn heads with his laser arm in a 2012 spring training game. He hit .325 with West Virginia that year, with 24 doubles, 6 triples, and 16 home runs. His OBP was only .388, but his 64/44 K/BB ratio was promising. The show of power was particularly promising given his lanky 6’4″ frame and since he’d only hit nine home runs in his entire short-season minor league career prior to 2012. He went to Bradenton last year and didn’t miss a beat. He moved up to Altoona at mid-season and though he didn’t quite dominate, seeing a 21-year old with budding power and a cannon for an arm walk as much as he strikes out in 68 games at Double-A is an incredibly promising thing.
Since then, he’s exploded. He won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the Dominican Winter League, he turned heads all throughout spring training, and his 43 games with Indianapolis this year have been mind-bending. He’s hitting .382/.444/.612 with 14 doubles, five triples, and five homers. He’s striking out a bit more, but he’s just a hair under a walk every ten plate appearances, and it’s hard to complain much about that sort of thing when he’s hitting .382. Before the season started, I figured that his rookie year might go like Starling Marte’s; he’d hit some, but most of his value would come from his good defense. I thought he’d be an asset, not a force of nature. I still tend to be cautious on all prospect-related fronts, but I’m done pretending like I know the limits of Gregory Polanco’s abilities. I’m excited.
Here’s the thing: as excited as I am about Polanco, I hate talking about him. It is now impossible to have a discussion about Polanco and how excited you might be for his impending arrival without it immediately devolving into someone yelling about how ridiculous and cheap the Pirates are for NOT PROMOTING HIM IMMEDIATELY. The Super Two discussion is a layered and nuanced one and with the Pirates sitting at 18-25 and eight games behind the Brewers, nobody has time for layers or nuance. #FreePolanco takes about a second to Tweet.
The reality of the Polanco Super Two Situation right now is that it’s no good for anybody. It’s obviously no good for the fans, because Gregory Polanco is better than Travis Snider and Jose Tabata and he’s not on the Pirates. It’s no good for Gregory Polanco, because there’s no worse feeling than knowing you’re being artificially held back from something you deserve for reasons that are beyond your power. The part that everyone forgets, though, is that it’s not particularly good for the Pirates, either, because this sort of situation is a lose-lose situation for a small-market team that’s trying to contend. Either you risk giving up wins in the present, or you risk having your budget exploded in the future.
Trying to figure out how to promote a prospect like Polanco is basically trying to balance an equation with a bunch of variables. He crushed the ball in winter ball and spring training, but the competition there is awfully difficult to quantify. When camp broke, he didn’t even have a half-season above Single-A, and so starting him at Triple-A made plenty of sense. Look at Javier Baez this year, for example why. I’m sure that everyone knows the approximate service timeline for rookies right now, but let’s lay it out anyway. Somewhere on or around April 15th, enough time has lapsed since Opening Day that a player won’t accrue a full year of service time if he’s called up. That essentially gives the team seven years of player control instead of six. If a player is called up anywhere between that mid-April date and the amorphous “super two” date in early-to-mid-June, the last four years of that player’s seven will be subject to the arbitration process. If he’s called up after that day, he’s only eligible for three years of arbitration. Because arbitration is a scaling process, teams are terrified of a prospect becoming a “super two” (named as such because they have more than two but less than three years of service). Even a small bump in salary in the nominal Year 2 (I suppose in this case this would be Year 0 of Polanco’s career, but let’s not get into comic book number of MLB career years) of a player’s career can have huge results in the final years of team control.
This, essentially, turns promoting Polanco into a story problem. If you accept that he needed at least some Triple-A time coming out of camp (and I think he did) and that it’s absolutely insane to promote a prospect for the first time during the first two weeks of the season (and it certainly is), then you have to figure out exactly how many games at Triple-A he needs to prove he’s ready and exactly how many games would he need to play to even begin to justify the raise that the Super Two status could potentially give him. I think that the answer, very roughly, is that the player has to be called up before May 1st for the discussion to even be had and that if you’re planning on disregarding the Super Two that it’d ideally be handled the way the Astros did with George Springer (they called him up on April 16th). Springer is 24, though, and spent last year split between Double-A and Triple-A, which makes him a bad comparison point for Polanco.
Speaking only for myself, it’s really just been the last two weeks or so where I’ve started to think that Polanco’s hot start is more than that. Even by then, though, it was probably too late on the timeline to justify that promotion. As Charlie pointed out last night, we’ve obviously past the point of diminishing returns here. With every day that goes by it becomes legitimately more stupid to call Polanco up before June Nth, because you’re paying for fewer and fewer games with that super two designation. That means we’ve entered a complete and total Vortex of Polanco Reasoning: it gets dumber to call him up with every day that goes by between now and then, but the screaming for his promotion will get louder and louder every day until we hit that date in June (if I had to guess I’d say it’s going to be June 13th or 17th, by the way, so just pencil it in now). I think that the next three weeks are actually going to drive me mad.
Speaking from my own perspective on this sort of situation, I go back and forth on it a lot. I think that the April 15th date for a seventh year of service time is basically a hard deadline, and that it’d be idiotic for a team like the Pirates to ignore that particular line. The Super Two thing is tougher, because it’s not a known quantity of money that’s being risked and because it seems legitimately unfair to the players. You could argue that since most good prospects are basically locked into seven years of service with their original team instead of the six specified by the CBA, that a fourth year of arbitration is only fair, which is the exact purpose of the Super Two designation. That’s a Major League Baseball problem and not necessarily a Pittsburgh Pirate problem, though. I think that Tim (or someone else at Pirates Prospects) made the point earlier in the year that you can’t necessarily think of Polanco’s Super Two decision in a vacuum. Whatever the amount of money the Pirates save here (and we like to use $10 million as a shorthand, but that’s probably an extreme scenario) might seem justifiably spent by calling Polanco up in this particular situation, but you can also take the team’s general Super Two policy and use it to triple that saved money with Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. After that, just keep multiplying it off into the future with every other Pirate prospect you’re excited about ad infinitum. That’s a sum of money worth thinking about.
I’ll close by saying again that this situation is just all-around lousy for everyone. I certainly get the “flags fly forever” sentiment and as time ticks on I become more and more partial to it. I think that there’s a chance that the Pirates will miss Dilson Herrera like crazy in about four years (based on the lack of infield prospects in their system as much as what I think Herrera is capable of vs. Alen Hanson), but the Marlon Byrd trade was a move the Pirates absolutely had to make last year. I also understand the basic requirement on a small market team to be willing to spend their limited funds in a way that another team might not; Russell Martin having the largest free agent contract in Pirate history makes sense in this regard, as does taking on AJ Burnett’s salary when literally no one else would. This is where the Pirates really tripped up last winter, I think, but that’s an entirely different discussion. I don’t think that promoting players regardless of arbitration status is a place to do that, though. To make a bit of a generalization, I think that small-market clubs that ignore a player’s arbitration status tend to be small-market clubs that trade young players because their salaries get out of control. It’s frustrating as a fan, but I think it’s the reality here.