The Polanco Conundrum

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It is June 10, 2014. Gregory Polanco was, until 10:30pm last night, a member of the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. There was probably not a more MLB-ready player currently in the minor leagues at the time he got the call, and every day he spent in Indianapolis this year was painful for all Yinzers.

This suffering is not unique to Pirate fans, of course. Nobody really expected Polanco to be up before last week, to be fair, because of the Super Two rule, a comparatively arcane part of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement that has become significantly less arcane as it has come to shape the first few months of every recent season.

A refresher on how this works: all players with three years of major league service time become arbitration eligible. Additionally, the top 22% of players who have more than two years but less than three are treated as if they have accumulated three years; hence Super Two. The rule, paradoxically, encourages teams to do things that line up against putting the best possible players on the field. Teams promote unremarkable players as roster filler, because they are not expected to cause much damage in arbitration, while holding back superstars to guarantee an extra year of team control at a discount. Past Super Two casualties include Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg, Wil Myers and Gerritt Cole. Jon Singleton was held back by the Astros until he signed a long-term deal, which mooted his arbitration clock. Oscar Tavares was held back by the Cardinals until they apparently decided that either it was safe to promote him or the Brewers were getting too far out in front. The list goes on.

But, again, it is June 10, 2014.  It is widely believed that the Super-Two date -- which no one knows for sure -- had been passed, comfortably. And still, Polanco was in Allentown on Sunday, going 1-for-5 against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. After his last game for Indy he was batting batting “only” .347.

The Super-Two charade, in which the the team gives barely-trying-to-be-convincing non-financial excuses for keeping a worthy player in Triple-A, is necessary, I suppose, to hold off any union grievance for holding him back for financial reasons. The Astros probably promoted George Springer in April when word of a Singleton-style offer came out, because with a full year of 1.000+ OPS in 2013,and a couple of weeks of further humiliating Triple-A pitchers in 2014, there were no longer any convincing arguments that Springer wasn’t ready. Someday the union will be pressed to test this superstar penalty, but Polanco didn’t have quite the ironclad case that Springer did when the Pirates made him a similar lowball offer. To prove this, the Pirates briefed their opposition to Polanco’s hypothetical grievance in the form of seriatim excuses to hold him back. They went like this:

  1. He is young (true) and had barely played above Double-A  (also true) so, despite a spring OPS of .804, Polanco needed a certain number of at-bats at Triple-A (true until, say, mid-May);
  2. he hadn't been tested mentally (a catch-22, as you can’t overcome struggle when nobody can get you out);
  3. he is still learning the nuances of the game and getting by on pure talent (like Yasiel Puig? Then more of that, please), and finally, laughably;
  4. he would be hitting leadoff in Pittsburgh, so he needs some at-bats in the leadoff position.

Of course, even the worst arguments will work when there’s no one willing to rebut them. The Bucs managed to keep Polanco in Indianapolis long enough that some IronPig fan accidentally kicked him in the head. He’s been fine batting leadoff, in case you were worried, and it was more of a brush from a fan’s foot than a kick.

All this delay, though, has created a second, surprising conundrum, that I think explains why Polanco couldn’t sublet his place in Indianapolis for so long: the emergence of Josh Harrison. Polanco was supposed to slide into right field next to MVP Andrew McCutchen and 2013’s breakout youngster Starling Marte to create an elite defensive outfield that also hit like hell. Travis Snider and Jose Tabata were supposed to be the fellows forced out of right field for Polanco’s emergence.

Tabata and Snider are decent enough fellows but not the sort of player who could or should block talent like Polanco. Alas, neither hit well enough to keep their jobs even without Polanco in Pittsburgh. So while Polanco was toiling away as the Super Two clock ticked down, Josh Harrison started taking at-bats from Snibata. (FYI, if you were worried: nobody calls them this.) Meanwhile, at the other corner, Marte was hurt, so Harrison took some of his at-bats too.  

Harrison seemingly doesn’t want to give the playing time back to anyone. He has an OPS of .817 and, for a converted infielder, has been playing surprisingly adequate defense, including some very dramatic diving plays. Taking him out of the lineup now for Polanco would be insane.

Marte’s injury healed, but even healthy he is having an awful year. Marte is batting .230. He finally broke an 0-for-23 slump last night and has often seemed listless, although, to be fair, what the hell do I know about his psyche?  But Marte is no Snibata. He's only 25, coming off a breakout year that warranted a long term contract. The Pirates can't really shelve him for Polanco either. 

So that’s where we stand in this wacky season: the Pirates wanted to bring Polanco up, but not until it was safe, and also they couldn't really replace the guy who is hitting and they can't replace the guy who isn't. Eventually the Pirates had to pull the trigger and bring Polanco up.

My suspicion is that while the Pirates were “preparing” Polanco to be a major league leadoff hitter/right fielder, they were simultaneously preparing Josh Harrison to be Jose Oquendo. Harrison has started in right and left field. He has spelled Pedro Alvarez against some lefties, since Alvarez still has a strong platoon split. He got his second start at second base last night to give Neil Walker a day off. It later emerged that Walker’s latest day off was for an appendectomy, which suggests that we’ve found Harrison’s new position, at least for a while. Still, owning multiple gloves will remain Harrison’s lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if Harrison was spotted at Dick’s Sporting Goods perusing shin guards and chest protectors.

A player hitting too well to be benched wasn’t exactly a bad problem for the Pirates to have. But Neil Walker’s surgical scars should heal, so Harrison’s position is still a problem the team needs to figure out. It would be nicer still if MLB and the MLBPA could figure out a solution for the bigger problem that kept Polanco in Indianapolis for so long.

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