The Pittsburgh Pirates lost again tonight, falling 4-1 to the Cincinnati Reds and Johnny Cueto, and dropping to 9-12 on the season. I wasn’t following the game closely tonight, since I was focusing on John Kuchno and Ryan Hafner in Bradenton. I was following along on Twitter, and in the process, was also following the big night that Gregory Polanco had. Polanco had three hits, including his third homer of the year. Predictably, the combination of Polanco hitting well, and the Pirates struggling offensively against Cueto, led to cries for Polanco to arrive in the majors immediately.
We’re now to the point in the season where Polanco could be called up, and still have an extra year of control. We are also at the point where it is only six weeks until the unofficial Super Two deadline. As I’ve written before, calling Polanco up early enough to give him Super Two status is a move that could cost $10-15 M extra over the long-run. That’s $10-15 M extra, all for six extra weeks of production. To put that in perspective, paying someone $10-15 M for six weeks of work would be the equivalent of giving someone a $40-60 M contract for one season.
Let’s just say there’s a reason why almost every team holds their impact prospects down until they’re clear from Super Two status. Sure, the $10-15 M isn’t going to be paid right away. And sure, the Pirates could afford to pay Polanco that extra money without going broke. But having money available isn’t justification for making a stupid financial decision. And there’s nothing that Polanco could do in six weeks to justify Super Two status.
I’ve been following Polanco for a long time, and I’ve been high on him for a long time. I don’t think there are many people who are looking forward to his arrival in the majors more than me. This job involves a lot of predictions on the future performance of players, and in a lot of cases those predictions are made when there is very little reason to make such a prediction.
When I first saw Polanco, he was extremely tall, extremely skinny, very fast, and had no stats that suggested he would ever be anything more than lower level depth. There’s something about seeing a guy like that, saying he will be a major leaguer, and then watching him turn into a guy who people can’t wait to see in the majors just a few years later. It’s reassuring. It makes you think you’re not crazy the next time you project good things for someone who isn’t getting a lot of love in other prospect rankings.
So I’m looking forward to Polanco arriving in the majors. In a perfect world, I’d like that arrival date to be yesterday. I’m not just looking forward to that because I’ve been following Polanco for a long time. I’m looking forward to it because I know that Polanco is a good kid, and you always hope for good things to happen to good people.
At the same time, it’s not my job to pull for certain individuals, or write based on that person’s specific personality. It’s my job to analyze the situation, explain why the Pirates might be taking a certain course of action, then discuss whether I agree with that course, or whether I would go a different route.
In this case, I agree with keeping Polanco down for Super Two purposes (although to be clear, the Pirates aren’t officially doing that…this is just pretty common speculation and it exists with every team). I’m agreeing with that because of the additional dollars and the fact that one player can’t possibly provide that much value over six weeks. I’m agreeing with that because it’s not just the Pirates doing this, but it’s all teams, which means I’m not the only one who thinks these top prospects can’t provide a lot of value in six weeks.
Most importantly, I’m also agreeing with the decision to keep Polanco down because the idea that the Pirates desperately need Polanco is false. Gregory Polanco isn’t the reason the Pirates are currently 9-12. If Polanco was up already, the Pirates would probably still be 9-12. Take a look at their recent losses:
4/22 – Johnny Cueto pitched a gem and the Pirates lost 4-1.
4/20 – Jason Grilli blew a save and the Pirates lost 3-2 in 14 innings.
4/19 – Jason Grilli blew a save and the Pirates lost 8-7.
4/18 – Charlie Morton ran into problems the second time through the lineup, giving up five runs in six innings, and the Pirates lost 5-3.
4/16 – Johnny Cueto shuts down the Pirates, and they lose 4-0.
4/15 – Gerrit Cole gives up four runs in the sixth inning and the Pirates lose 7-5.
Polanco isn’t going to make a difference in either game against Cueto when the rest of the offense is struggling. He’s not converting saves for Jason Grilli against Ryan Braun. He’s not going to come in and pitch for Gerrit Cole or Charlie Morton the second or third time through the lineup. He might provide some offense, but in non-Cueto games lately, offense hasn’t been the problem.
The Pirates have scored 42 runs in seven non-Cueto games since the start of last week. That’s an average of six runs per game. The problem for the Pirates isn’t the lack of Polanco on the roster. The problem is that they’re in a team-wide cold stretch. The starters are struggling, and surprisingly Edinson Volquez is the only consistent guy in the rotation. The bullpen has also struggled in the last week, with Grilli blowing two saves against Braun and the Brewers. The offense can’t hit Cueto without 40,000 fans wearing all black, taunting the right-hander. Bringing Polanco up solves none of these problems.
What you have to ask yourself is whether you think this is just a slump, or whether the team is actually going to continue struggling like this. Either way, it doesn’t make sense for Polanco to come up. If this is a slump, then guys like Morton, Cole, and Grilli will rebound going forward, and the Pirates will get back to winning. If it’s a sign that they’re not that good, then why would you bring Polanco up early and risk Super Two status for a team that is probably not going to win with him on the roster?
If you’re in the camp that thinks one player can make a massive difference, just look at Ike Davis. He has hit well since arriving in Pittsburgh, but the Pirates are also 1-3 in that time. That has nothing to do with Davis. It has everything to do with the understanding of the value limitations that one player can have. Polanco will be no different. He’ll be a great guy to have on the roster, but expecting him to be the difference between a winning team and a losing team right now is an expectation that shouldn’t be placed on any player — especially not a rookie making his debut.
We’re probably six weeks away from Polanco arriving in the majors. In that six weeks, I think we’ll see better performances all around the roster, compared to what we saw in the last week. I think the last week was a bad week, and not a sign of future doom for the Pirates. I think if last week happened in the middle of June, it would be called what it was — a cold streak. As for Polanco, I’m looking forward to his eventual arrival in the majors. At the same time, I can’t fault the Pirates for taking the same approach with their top prospect that pretty much every other team takes with their own top prospects.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.