Tough call up: Prospect Polanco puts Pirates into precarious position

Gregory Polanco can help the Pirates win games now – but bringing him up will hurt them later.

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco stands to learn a good amount of money in his career.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates are now in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t position with their top prospect, outfielder Gregory Polanco.

They’re damned if they promote him in early-to-mid June, proving they held off just to deny him an extra year of salary arbitration.

And they’re damned if they don’t promote him, because, well, they’re 21st in the majors in runs and 24th in OPS from right field.

The Pirates should be building momentum off their first postseason appearance in 21 years. But they made precious few upgrades during the offseason, and now they’re playing service-time games with a player who is batting .395 with a 1.057 OPS at Triple-A.

The team’s spin on Polanco - he’s not ready - is no different than the spin of any other club in regard to top prospects this time of year. But their offer to Polanco -- a seven-year deal with three club options for about $25 million, first reported by Yahoo! Sports and confirmed by FOX Sports – exposed their financial motives.

Only the Pirates know if Polanco, 22, would be their right fielder by now if he had accepted the contract. But the deal would have removed the financial disincentives to promote him.

If Polanco signed long-term, the Pirates would not need to worry about keeping him in the minors long enough to gain extra control over him before free agency or to prevent him from gaining “Super Two” arbitration status.

The Astros tried a similar maneuver with outfielder George Springer last September, offering him a seven-year, $23 million contract. After Springer rejected the deal, they waited to promote him until April 16, delaying his free agency but likely ensuring that he will be a “Super Two.”

As I wrote earlier this week, the Pirates’ best argument against promoting Polanco to play right field is that he has only 430 plate appearances above Class A. Andrew McCutchen had 1,466 before reaching the majors, and Starling Marte had 1,003.

That is a legitimate point – in a vacuum.

The larger questions are these:  How much more polish does Polanco actually need at Triple-A? And how much could he help the Pirates right now?

The answers probably would have been far different if Polanco had accepted the Pirates’ offer coming off an offseason in which he was MVP of the Dominican winter league.

Contracts that guarantee $25 million sound amazing for players who have yet to appear in the majors. In truth, they’re not so amazing at all, at least not in baseball economics.

Yes, the deals offer protection against the risk of catastrophic injury. But for a position player, that risk is minimal. While a young outfielder like Grady Sizemore occasionally breaks down, young pitchers who require Tommy John surgery are far more common.

Polanco’s deal would have covered his three years of club controlled salaries prior to arbitration, his three arbitration years and one free-agent year, plus three more free-agent years on his club options.

The breakdown, while not known, might have looked something like this:

Three pre-arbitration years at $2M, followed by three arbitration years at $2.5M, $4.5M and $7M. His first free-agent year may have then been $9M.

The option years would have increased the potential value to $50 million to $60 million, according to CBSSports.com. At the high end, that’s $35 million for three years, or an average of just under $12 million per season -- in 2021, ’22 and ’23, though.

Polanco would have not have become a free agent until he was 32, at the outer edge of his prime, or maybe even past it. In other words, he probably would not have gotten another shot at a monster contract.

Heck, let’s go worst-case scenario and project that Polanco will be a bust offensively, even though few in the sport envision that. His defense and baserunning still would make him valuable as a fourth outfielder.

The Nationals signed such a player, Nate McClouth, to a two-year, $10.75 million free-agent contract last offseason. By the time Polanco hits free agency at 29, the McLouths of the world figure to be paid even more.

If, on the other hand, Polanco fulfills his potential, inflation will work to his benefit, too. Indeed, the Pirates’ desire to deny him an extra year of arbitration is understandable, considering where salaries might go.

Hunter Pence, after qualifying for “Super Two” status, earned $34.6 million over his four years of arbitration from 2010 to ’13. He likely would have earned about $10 million less – a significant difference -- if he had been arbitration-eligible for only three years.

Polanco, conceivably, could follow a similar path, only at bigger numbers. The tradeoff for the Pirates -- if they restrict his arbitration eligibility to three years -- is that he will reach free agency a year sooner, reducing the impact of their potential savings.

Then again, why should the Pirates even be preoccupied with such concerns? They signed McCutchen and Marte to long-term deals that likely will prove club-friendly. Who’s to say they could not do the same with Polanco during their six years of control?

Here’s a novel thought: Promote him now, worry about the rest later. Put the best possible team on the field.

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