In the first half of the 2016 season, it looked as if Gregory Polanco was turning the corner in his development. After showing glimpses of his potential over the course of his first two seasons in the major leagues, the Dominican Republic native looked as if he was due to become the latest Pirates outfielder to make the All-Star Game. Quite frankly, everyone was buying into the notion that we were about to see the true glory of Polanco. His .287 batting average to along with a .862 OPS that was powered by 12 home runs and 50 RBI in 300 at-bats to begin the season would make a believer out of anyone that this kid was finally figuring out how to be a really good major league hitter.
But since his fabulous start to last season, El Coffee has been pretty much reduced to El Decaf. Polanco’s OPS dropped 200 points to .662 in the second half of the season, mainly caused by a pathetic on-base percentage of .267. His home runs and RBI only dipped slightly to 10 and 36 apiece, but the batting average took the bigger hit plummeting 67 points to a mediocre .220. The only area where Polanco dramatically improved from the first half of 2016 was his batting average with runners in scoring position, which was a surprising .218 prior to the All-Star break. In the second part of 2016, the Dominican outfielder batted .276 with men on second or third despite having his numbers down. This decline in production was one of the many reasons why the Pirates faded into the night over the last few months of the season. Many figured Polanco’s slump in the second half was only a blip on the radar in a budding career. So far in 2017, it does not look so much like a blip, but a troubling pimple.
After a promising World Baseball Classic with his home country where Polanco led the team in batting average (.570), hits (11) and OPS (1.416), you would hope this success would transfer over to when it really mattered. But through 29 games this season, the woes at the plate from 2016 have reappeared for El Coffee. Polanco is currently batting .241 with a .694 OPS while driving in only 7 RBI. His first home run of the season finally came Thursday night in Arizona to break up Zack Greinke’s no-hit bid in the 8th inning. It was the only run or hit the Pirates could muster in the latest loss of a five game losing streak.
These are the stats of a cleanup hitter in a major league baseball lineup. Simply unbelievable. Even when the Pirates clubhouse was full of washed up bums a decade ago, they at least had a competent number four batter in their order. It is hard to say where the best place to drop Polanco is in the batting order. Fifth or sixth would be the most logical with fifth being the favorite. Understandably, they do not really have anyone healthy to consider replacing Polanco. I mean, John Jaso batted cleanup when the Pirates were able to blow out the Reds in Cincinnati, but I have a minuscule amount of trust in that proposition. The question is whether Clint Hurdle should move Polanco down in the lineup in order to put less pressure on him and get his bat going. But as I said earlier, there are few options right as we speak.
Josh Bell is currently having his own identity crisis with a goose egg in the hit column on this road trip. Along with Jose Osuna, these two need to find their way in the major leagues without having the weight of the world on their shoulders hitting behind Andrew McCutchen. Catcher Francisco Cervelli is dabbling in the number two slot in the lineup between Josh Harrison and Cutch and actually has swung a pretty good bat so far in 2017. A move Hurdle could make the next time the Pirates face a left handed starter is putting Cervelii in the cleanup spot while Jordy Mercer takes his usual spot in the two hole when a lefty is on the mound. And that’s pretty much the only remaining healthy options on this Pirates roster unless you want to get real crazy and put Mercer, Gift Ngoepa or Max Moroff in the four spot. Hurdle may need committed to Western Psych if he goes that far.
The problems with Polanco could have been masked if they a similar bench to their 2016 roster. Matt Joyce or even Sean Rodriguez would probably get a shot at the cleanup role if Hurdle had them on his roster this season. Likewise with David Freese who is still recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered back in April. In my view, once the former Cardinal returns, he needs to follow Cutch in the order followed by Polanco. This will give the lineup a new dynamic since the Dominican outfielder is more likely to hit with a man on with Freese ahead of him than McCutchen. Though it is no guarantee the former World Series Most Valuable Player will continue on the torrid pace he began the season with, but desperate times calls for desperate measures.
You can throw all the excuses at why Polanco has started out this season so poor. Maybe it was the switch from right to left to back to right. Maybe it was losing his brother-in-arms and fellow countryman Starling Marte for 80 games. Maybe Polanco is not as good as he was projected to be when he was coming thru the Pirates system. However you put it, Hurdle needs to get his young outfielder’s engine going in order to salvage the offensive identity of this club. If not, it is going to be a long, painful summer at PNC Park.