Contract negotiations represent one of the strange dichotomies of sports fandom. One is often caught rooting for a team owned by a billionaire to essentially shortchange an athlete to broker a deal that is beneficial for the team and then criticizing said athlete if he does not live up to his very public contracted wage. Case and point: The contract Gregory Polanco signed earlier this month.
The Pirates signed the 24-year old outfielder to a 5-year contract extension worth $35 million guaranteed. Polanco’s contract will begin in 2017 and has two options worth $12.5 million and $13.5 million plus incentives that could bring the total value of the contract to 7 years and $60 million.
For those keeping score, this is remarkably close to the 5-year, $32 million contract that our own Kevin Creagh predicted earlier this year. For those uninterested in trivial self-congratulations, this represents another significant investment into a young outfielder that could potentially turn into a bargain for the Pirates in the future. And for a team obviously committed to operating on a shoestring budget, moves like these are crucial if the Pirates hope to maintain success through the rest of the decade.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington touted the move as one that was beneficial to all parties, and he’s not wrong. It’s likely that nobody reading this article will ever earn $35 million, so for us to quantify a person making this much money as “underpaid” is, on the surface, kind of ridiculous. But considering the comically large amount of money that regional and national television networks are funneling into Major League Baseball, this contract could easily turn into a bargain for the Pirates.
“The agreement will provide Gregory with incredible financial security and the club with the ability to build around Gregory as one of our core players for years into the future,” Huntington said.
Now, it’s entirely possible that five years from now we’ll all be talking about Polanco’s contract in the same way that we talk about Andrew McCutchen’s and Starling Marte’s. Both of Pittsburgh’s other star outfielders signed long, affordable contracts that have not only paid for themselves but appear to have significantly shortchanged the two best Pirates players.
Could Polanco’s deal be similarly financially beneficial to the Pirates in 2023 when Polanco turns 32 years old? The Pirates surely hope so. And, if it does turn out to be a similar bargain, the Pirates deserve a lot of credit for making Polanco feel at home. When his contract was officially announced, Polanco expressed his commitment to the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh.
“I want to thank the city for making me feel at home,” Polanco said. “I love to be here, so I decided to sign here.”
Firstly, after decades of Pittsburgh being the baseball equivalent of Chernobyl, it’s still reassuring to hear a player refer to Pittsburgh as a desirable destination. From watching the Pirates, it’s obvious that this team is quite good. But it wasn’t long ago that Jason Kendall greeted new Pirates by saying, “Welcome to hell.”
Secondly, the people within the Pirates organization were instrumental in turning Polanco from the lanky 17-year old they found at a baseball showcase in the Dominican Republic into the toolsy youngster who Joe Sheehan once called, “A more polished Yasiel Puig.” Polanco was being showcased as a pitcher, but Pirates super scout Rene Gayo liked him more as an outfielder and the Bucs brought him through their state-of-the-art baseball school in El Toro, D.R on a $150,000 gamble that has already paid off brilliantly.
For Polanco, $35 million offers plenty of insurance that he and his family will be set for life. While someone like Gerrit Cole, who was drafted first overall and received an $8 million signing bonus, can afford to look forward to the $200+ million contract offer that could be waiting for him in free agency, Polanco didn’t really have that option. There was a chance that he could make more money entering free agency as a 29-year old, but millions upon millions of guaranteed dollars really alleviates a lot of pressure.
And it’s important to recognize that even though Polanco is talented, he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the major leagues. Comparing McCutchen and Marte to Polanco is convenient, both of those players were significantly more established whenever they signed their contracts than Polanco was when he signed his.
McCutchen was a bona fide star by the time he signed his six-year, $51.5 million contract in 2012. According to Fangraphs, McCutchen accrued 12.4 WAR before he signed that contract and has added an astounding 28.1 WAR since then. If one accepts that a single win above replacement is worth $7 million, then McCutchen has already produced $283.5 million worth of value and still has one guaranteed year and one option left on his contract. Marte had barely more than a season’s worth of games under his belt when he signed a six-year, $31 million deal in 2014 but had already posted 5.8 WAR. And, advanced metrics aside, Marte’s speed and elite defense provided him with an incredibly high floor.
Polanco’s numbers simply aren’t as good. After a feverishly hot start to his major league career in 2014, Polanco suffered down the stretch and eventually lost his starting job to Travis Snider. The youngster was gifted the job in 2015 when the Bucs traded Snider to Baltimore, but he again stumbled out of the gate. Polanco hit just .237/.315/.338 during the first half of last season and was legitimately one of the least productive right fielders in the National League. He turned things around and had an extremely productive July and August last season, but his .701 OPS, 94 wRC+, and 2.3 WAR make him one of the least productive position players to sign a pre-arbitration contract extension.
While these numbers surely came up during Polanco’s contract negotiations, the Pirates signed him because of his raw athletic ability. Polanco oozes potential. In fact, the Pirates offered him pretty much the same contract that he just signed before the lefty even debuted in the major leagues. In 2014, after Polanco had torn through Triple-A and before he rode a tidal wave of fan-fueled hype to the major leagues, the Pirates reportedly offered Polanco a ten-year contract worth up to $75 million. Polanco and his agent declined and, to their credit, signed a similar deal less than two years later.
But the Pirates are clearly betting on the future, and it’s a pretty safe bet. Polanco currently has 230 lbs. of muscle packed onto his 6’5” frame and continually shows room for more physical growth. His long legs allow him to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and his cannon arm rivals Marte’s rocket launcher in left. And, really, what are they risking? A fortune for most people is merely a drop in the bucket for an MLB franchise, even notorious tightwads like the Pirates. If everything works out and Polanco becomes an above average player, the Bucs recoup great value from the deal. If he turns into Jose Tabata: Part Deux, whatever. A team obviously doesn’t want to whiff on a $35 million investment, but that kind of money isn’t going to ruin a franchise.
So far, the Pirates seem to have made a pretty good investment. In the early stages of the 2016 season, Polanco has been the epitome of Pittsburgh’s newfound patient plate approach. Polanco has drawn walks in 21 percent of his plate appearances, up from 8.4 percent the year before, and has only struck out eight times. It’s early in the season, but Polanco is waiting for his pitches and, when he gets them, he’s hitting them hard.
Polanco is currently playing with confidence, just as he was last season after manager Clint Hurdle reassured him that he wasn’t going to be sent to the minor leagues as a result of his slow start. And considering his newfound job security, there is little to indicate that he will lose this confidence anytime soon.