There was a time not all that long ago, when the Pirates were a young up-and-coming force. They were a perfect example of forward-thinking management, smart drafting, and skillful development. They had an MVP, a stable of young pitchers set to dominate baseball, and a host of young position players on the cusp, ready to play their roles as the Bucs dominated baseball for the next half decade. It never came to be, of course, with other better, richer teams surpassing them in their own division, the talent not quite developing at the right rate, and their face of the franchise falling from Olympus and being moved for prospects and cash. The window, it seems, has squeaked all but shut. The bones of what was to be a golden age aren’t all gone though. Some of those young future stars are still there, still pretty young, and maybe just now finding themselves. Former top prospect Gregory Polanco is one of those young men.
Polanco’s is a name that feels like it’s been rattling around Pittsburgh forever. And in fact, this is his fifth year in the majors, even though he’s still just 26 years old. This is also not the first time an article about him “figuring it out” has been written. Back in 2016 he was posting a 126 wRC+ in the first half, but shoulder problems sapped him of his strength and tanked his season stats. Hamstring problems crushed his 2017 numbers, and now that the Pirates have all but fallen from the broader public consciousness, his excellent 2018 is barely a blip on the radar of most baseball fans.
Which is not to say it isn’t exciting. Seeing a player turn it around is always neat and fun. We want more great players all the time. It’s also not that unique a story, the path he’s taken to accelerate his career. You’ve read and heard it time and again the last few years, from Yonder Alonso to Jesus Aguilar to Josh Donaldson. More fly balls, more damage, and maybe a bit less chasing of pitches out of the zone. Polanco is doing all that: his fly ball rate a career high 49.7 percent (12 points above his career average), his walk rate has leaped to 12.1 percent (three points above his career rate and nearly double his 2017 number), and his O-swing rate is 26.8 percent (the lowest since his rookie year and nearly five points below his career average).
So he’s made all the right adjustments (and the Pirates as a whole seem to have bought in full bore to the “no slugs on the ground” idea) and is turning in a great little season for himself. Which is very nice to see, because we always want young players to flourish and become very good and stun us with their amazing skills and abilities. It’s a bit bittersweet though, for so many reasons. The Pirates rising to the top of the league for a brief time, it was a bit magical. It was the fruition of the little guy rising up and challenging the powers that be. Of course all owners are rich, but the Pirates were the downtrodden— nearly a quarter century of no Octobers, a home of legends of the sport’s history that had fallen on hard times. So seeing them shine so briefly as they did, and seeing players like Polanco or Starling Marte or Josh Bell have such underwhelming starts to a career, it’s a bit sad to think of what might have been.
Which is not to say it’s all finished for the Pirates. Yes, the Cubs are a juggernaut with an elite front office and gobs of money. The Cardinals are the unassuming Yankees of the Midwest, just released from a Matheny shaped anchor. Milwaukee has arrived from their own rebuild and the Reds are… well, we’ll see about the Reds. The sailing may not be so smooth.
Pittsburgh isn’t bereft though. There’s a glimmer of a future here, and Polanco might just be a big part of that. He’s signed through 2021, plus a couple team options, so whatever he becomes it’ll most likely be as a Pirate. And again, he’s so young. Careers that don’t start right certainly aren’t over, and he’s a perfect example of that. It’s certainly not the path anyone expected for him or Pittsburgh of course. Now with the Archer deal and this newfound life in the second half, they have something resembling the energy that surrounded them when they were led by McCutchen into October.
So the Pirates original rebuild and contention didn’t go according to plan. Neither has Polanco’s career. If you wanted, you could even say they mirror each other – loads of unrealized promise and then, years after people thought it was over, there’s a hint of hope. How it all shakes out in the end is still up for debate. He certainly wasn’t the one anyone thought would be the new key piece to the team’s resurgence, and maybe I’m making a mountain out of the molehill of a merely pretty good season. There’s no real ending in baseball though, just new years, new faces, and new chances. It took them 20 years last time, so waiting for a young guy to flourish can’t have been that hard for the Pirates. Hopefully this is just another new beginning. For both of them.
Merritt Rohlfing gets optimistic about small market teams’ hot streaks at Beyond the Box Score and raves about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Give him a follow on Twitter @MerrillLunch.