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Why the Pirates shouldn't demote Gregory Polanco

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Neal Huntington recently said the Pirates aren't considering demoting Gregory Polanco. As hard as it is to watch Polanco struggle, I'm inclined to agree that the Bucs shouldn't do that. Josh Harrison's injury and Starling Marte's uncertain status make it appear especially likely that Polanco isn't going anywhere, but I started this article before the Harrison news broke, so I'm going to go ahead and finish it.

First, the standard disclaimers: I don't coach Polanco or speak to him regularly. I don't know exactly how the Pirates plan to develop him, and I don't know much about his frame of mind.

Absent any of that information, though, demoting Polanco seems like the wrong thing to do. If you haven't already, I recommend reading the comments in the Travis Ishikawa thread. There's a ton of interesting debate there about Polanco. Here are some of the key points:

-P- As DG Lewis points out in the comments, Polanco has already proven he can crush Triple-A-type pitching, both with Indianapolis and in Dominican winter ball. Maybe he'd get something out of going back to that level and doing the same thing again. I'm open to that possibility. But I'm not sure what that "something" would be.

-P- A couple months ago, someone -- I think it was Azibuck -- suggested that International League pitching was fundamentally different from big league pitching, and that Polanco had a skill set well suited for beating up on International League pitching but not major league pitching.

I'm not sure how far I want to go with that line of reasoning. Generally, players who can pound Triple-A pitching should also be able to hit big-league pitching. The impression that it seems to be otherwise is mostly caused by things like small sample sizes, and by the fact that the competition level in the majors is higher. (And the gap between the two levels is larger now than it was a decade or so ago, which might be contributing to Polanco's problems.) I also think concerns about Polanco's long swing (which theoretically might play better against softer-tossing Triple-A vets) are probably somewhat overstated. Polanco's swing often doesn't look long to me when he's facing pitchers who throw hard.

It's true, though, that in the International League, you'll typically get one of two types of pitchers. The most common starting pitcher type is a control pitcher who doesn't throw as hard as most big-leaguers. Chris Volstad is a good example of a type of pitcher one frequently sees in Triple-A rotations. If the length of Polanco's swing is a problem, facing pitchers like Volstad probably isn't the best way to fix it.

The other pitcher type frequently seen in Triple-A is the hard thrower who lacks good control, someone like Blake Wood. But Polanco has always had fairly good plate discipline, and he's mostly retained that trait in the big leagues, so he doesn't necessarily have much to gain from facing that kind of pitcher, either.

I think Polanco still has considerable upside, so when someone suggests he be sent back to Triple-A, I think, "How would that help him?" I'm not in the organization, so I don't know, but it's hard to see how it would. He hasn't yet figured out how to hit big-league pitching, but probably the best way for him to do that is to keep trying.

-P- The Pirates' alternatives simply aren't that great, and that was true even before Josh Harrison's injury weakened their bench. Travis Ishikawa hasn't even hit that well at Triple-A in the past couple seasons. Jaff Decker is a nice depth player, but he's never really crushed Triple-A pitching. I'm not sure I need to explain why Jose Tabata or Gorkys Hernandez shouldn't be starting in right field in the big leagues.

And Polanco, for all his flaws, isn't that bad. Well, okay, he's pretty bad. But he contributes just enough, with his walks, baserunning (despite his misadventures with sliding this year) and defense that he's not likely to be worse than the alternatives.

There is, of course, the possibility that the Pirates could trade for someone who's a real upgrade. If doing so were to substantially increase their chances of advancing through the playoffs, and if the prospect cost were reasonable, I couldn't argue with it. Flags fly forever, and Polanco will have more time to develop next season. But in the absence of a big trade, it looks like the Pirates' best option is to stick with him. He's still a potential star, and he wouldn't be the first one to take awhile to start shining.