Gregory Polanco is Coming, and the Pittsburgh Pirates Are Ready
The Pirates have been waiting for this. The city of Pittsburgh and their fans have been waiting for this. Fantasy owners, the entire Major League Baseball organization, my dog – all have been waiting for this.
Gregory Polanco is coming. Tonight.
Sitting with a 30-33 record, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 7.5 games behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central. That sounds like a miserable place to be after making the postseason for the first time since 1992 last year, but on May 20th, the Pirates were 18-26. In less than a month, Pittsburgh has crawled their way back into relevancy, going 12-7.
And that’s what makes the elite prospect’s call-up so interesting. Not only are the Pirates playing better ball, but they’re now adding a lefty bat that hit to a .347/.405/.540 slash in AAA in 274 plate appearances.
Polanco will play right field, a position for Pittsburgh that’s seen three players this year. Pirate right fielders have been average in comparison to the rest of the league in 2014, ranking 16th in wOBA, 15th in RBI, and 14th in OBP. So while Polanco should be an upgrade, making the Pirates outfield as talented and youthful as you’ll find in the bigs, his being called up is one that will really help the team's depth.
The hottest of the three Pirate right fielders is leadoff man Josh Harrison, who has a .348 wOBA on the year and is batting .330 with 18 runs scored in the top spot in the order for Pittsburgh. Fortunately, Harrison’s arguably the most versatile player the team has, so he can fill other spots on the field as Polanco makes the move to right.
If Harrison and Polanco are both in the lineup – which will certainly happen now that second baseman Neil Walker was placed on the 15-day DL due to an appendectomy last night – the biggest question will be who manager Clint Hurdle decides to place in the leadoff spot. We’ll find out tonight when the lineups are made, but given Harrison’s overall body of work, it’s fairly obvious that the long-term solution is Polanco (or once leadoff man Starling Marte) and not Harrison.
The Pirates lineup, overall, will be better off. But like I mentioned earlier in the season, the bats aren’t necessarily the problem for their early-season woes. The team’s starting pitching now has the third-worst earned run average in the National League, behind only the Rockies and Diamondbacks, two teams who pitch in more hitter-friendly parks. Even in terms of xFIP, Pittsburgh’s starters are tied for third-worst in the NL with the Mets.
Over the last 30 days, the Pirates bats have hit to the ninth-best wOBA in Major League Baseball, a drastic change compared to the 25th wOBA ranking they had back at the end of April. Meanwhile, over this time, Pirate starting pitching has sat as fairly average in terms of ERA and xFIP. So while the Pirates have been winning more games, the change in hitting is one of the key reasons, not necessarily the slight improvement in pitching. Therefore, though Polanco will clearly help the lineup, he's not the exact answer for the Pirates right now. In truth, had pitching prospect Jameson Taillon not needed Tommy John surgery to start the season, he could have been the missing piece for the Pirates.
The Pirates still need Polanco, but as I said, they need him more for what he does to the team's depth, not just his production on the field. Moving him to right allows the team to shift Josh Harrison all over, and if Harrison gets comfortable in the field at shortstop (-11.9 UZR/150 in just 167 innings as a shortstop), he has an opportunity to take over for the struggling platoon of Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes. This year, the Pirates have just a .252 wOBA at the position, which is fifth worst in all of baseball. Shifting Harrison there at least against righties would make sense, as Mercer and Barmes both have averages less than .237 against right-handers. Harrison in 2014, meanwhile, is hitting .280 off of right-handed pitching.
If Harrison can continue to hit the way he's been hitting, his versatility could be the real reason this Polanco move works wonders. But even if Harrison struggles at positions he's not used to playing, the Buccos are still getting themselves one of the best hitting prospects out there, and it should add even more excitement for the young club.