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Pirates Analysis

Ten Things That Went Wrong for the Pirates in 2021 – No. 6: Polanco Era Comes to an End



It was not all that long ago that Gregory Polanco was viewed as one of the better prospects in baseball, drawing comparisons to the likes of Darryl Strawberry and some of the other great sluggers in the history of the game. The thought of an outfield of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco gave the Pirates optimism in the sense that the trio could rival the outfield of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla from the early 1990s.

Alas for the Pirates, Polanco’s 2021 was like it was for the majority of his career – disappointing. Polanco hit just .208 with a .637 OPS in 107 games for the Pirates this year, leading the Bucs to designate Polanco for assignment at the end of August. Polanco eventually signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays but did not get to the Majors in Toronto.

Polanco made his Major League debut for the Pirates in 2015, making him the team’s lonest-tenured player heading into the season. Former general manager Neal Huntington was proactive in giving the right fielder a five-year $35M extension shortly after the 2016 season began. That year was Polanco’s first successful season as he hit 22 homers, drove in 86 runs and carried an OPS+ of 108. However, Polanco was limited to 108 games the following year and struggled throughout the season. That year, he had just a .695 OPS and couldn’t do much damage offensively, totaling 11 home runs and 35 RBIs.

It was in 2018 that Polanco looked like he was starting to breakout and was beginning to live up to the expectations he came with as a prospect. It was by far Polanco’s best season as a Major Leaguer as the 6-foot-5 outfielder had an OPS+ of 128 and blasted a career-high 23 homers through 130 games. Unfortunately for Polanco, his season was cut short as he suffered a knee and shoulder injury sliding into second base.

After the injury Polanco never looked the same as he did during that 2018 season. In 199 games over the next three years, Polanco hit just .203 with a .634 OPS (70 OPS+). Defensively, the once strong arm from Polanco all but disappeared thanks to the shoulder injury he suffered on the slide. He became a liability on defense and teams took notice of that in 2021, often taking an extra base on balls hit to Polanco.

The decision to DFA Polanco was difficult because he had a strong work ethic and was beloved in the Pirates’ clubhouse. Ultimately, the production along with his high salary was too much to overlook and Ben Cherington made decided that it was time to move on from him.

Polanco’s career in the black and gold can be summarized a lot of different ways – a roller coaster, disappointing, etc. Ultimately, it came down to untapped potential. Polanco showed flashes of being a quality Major Leaguer, but injuries and consistency derailed him from ever becoming the next star of the Pirates that the team had hoped.

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