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Will Gregory Polanco bounce back?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Given the flurry of changes that have taken place at 115 Federal Street, dozens of questions loom regarding the Pittsburgh Pirates and the makeup of the club for the 2020 season.

One of the biggest questions pertains to the future of outfielder Gregory Polanco. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound left-handed hitter was on his way to a solid season in 2018 when, 130 games into the campaign, he attempted one of the ugliest – and what turned out to be physically debilitating – slides in recent Pirates history.

The slide brought a painful halt to Polanco’s best season to date, as he had hit 23 home runs, knocked in 81 runs and put together a .340 on-base percentage and an .839 OPS in 461 at-bats.

For those who might not recall, in a Sept. 7 game against the Miami Marlins, Polanco slashed a drive to right center and was attempting to leg out a double when it all came crashing down – literally. Polanco, trying to avoid the tag of Starling Castro by going inside the bag at second, leaped into the air before starting his slide, then landed awkwardly before finishing face down in the dirt, his left arm outstretched upon second base. I remember seeing it unfold on TV and thinking it might have been the worst-looking slide I’d ever seen – and I also thought he would be lucky to come out of it physically intact.

As it turned out, he did not. The slide resulted in two injuries – one to his left knee and one to his left, or throwing, shoulder. The odd thing is, if you watch a replay of the slide, it doesn’t appear that his throwing shoulder took the worst of the damage, but that’s ultimately what transpired.

At the time, the thought was that Polanco could be out until the following June due to his shoulder surgery, but he pushed his rehab so that he could return much quicker. He made his first start on April 22 in what turned out to be the Pirates 20th game of the season, and he held his own for a while – he was batting .295 with an .891 OPS as of May 18. But things went downhill from there. By mid-June, his OPS had dropped to .726 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 153 at-bats, and it was clear that his surgically repaird shoulder had not fully healed.

He was placed on the injured list with left shoulder inflammation and attempted to return, but his shoulder tightness never dissipated. Eventually, the club decided to shut him down for good after he received PRP injections in early September.

So, did Polanco try to come back too soon from his offseason surgery? And did the Pirates err by allowing that to happen? I have no insight into the inner workings of the club’s trainers and team doctors, so it would ridiculous to speculate. The bigger questions, at least for me, are: will Polanco ever be truly healthy again and, if so, what version of Polanco will the Pirates get in 2020? Can they count on him to regain his 2018 form and perhaps finally fulfill the vast potential that many saw in him when he broke out as a prospect during his age-20 season in 2012? That year, at Class A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, he belted 16 home runs, drove in 85, stole 40 bases and struck out just 64 times while drawing 44 walks in 437 at-bats. Those numbers, combined with his eye-popping physical tools, led many to believe he would be the Pirates’ Next Big Thing.

He followed that up with another solid season in the minors in 2013, and after starting out hot at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2014, he earned his call to the big league club in June. He started fast, batting .281 with a .751 OPS in his first month of action, but he scuffled from that point on, batting just .202 with a .577 OPS in his final 60 appearances. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first full season (2015), but he put in a full campaign and drove in 52 runs while hitting .256 in his age-23 season. He improved in 2016, upping his home run total from nine to 22 and drove in what remains a career-high 86 runs to go with a .786 OPS. Battling ongoing left hamstring problems, he fell off in 2017, finishing with a .695 OPS and just 35 RBIs in 379 at-bats, but then rebounded the following year before his catastrophic slide put a crippling halt to his 2018 season.

So, what’s to become of Polanco? Will he ever fulfill the potential that many saw in him? Or was that a mirage, clouded by his Central Casting slugger physique and his occasional sweet power stroke? I know many Pirates fans have seen enough, but for me, it’s too soon to give up on him. He’ll be playing at his age-28 season, and while some say his die has already been cast, I’ve seen a few players finally put things together at that “advanced” age and start a string of several solid seasons. Jose Bautista, anyone? In Bautista’s age-28 season, he compiled a .235 batting average to go with a .757 OPS in 113 games with Toronto – and that was his career-best OPS at that point. But he absolutely exploded the following year with 54 home runs and a .995 OPS, and ran off five straight seasons where his OPS never dipped below .856 – and reached as high as 1.056. It’s true that Bautista is the exception, and it would be too much to ask for Polanco to approach those numbers. But what about Brandon Moss? In the three seasons that began with his age-28 campaign, he charted OPSs of .954, .859 and .772 and averaged 25 home runs and 73 RBIs. Would that be acceptable for the next three seasons? Polanco is set to earn $8 million next season and $11 million in 2021, with a $12.5 million club option – and a $3 million buyout – in 2022.

I admit I’m a sucker for a left-handed hitter with a long swing – Willie McCovey might be my all-time favorite player -- and I know there are plenty of holes in Polanco’s swing when he’s going poorly. But I just can’t believe that Polanco, if healthy, won’t give the Pirates their money’s worth over the next three seasons. That’s not to say the Pirates should absolutely count on him from Day 1 next season, and I’d be all in favor of bringing in someone capable of playing four days a week in right field while the club finds out if Polanco is indeed healthy. The list of free agent outfielders isn’t all that attractive, but there are a few options. I’ve always been an Avisail Garcia fan, and Hunter Pence had a nice bounce-back year in Texas last season, although one must wonder if that was an aberration, given his mileage. Perhaps even moving Adam Frazier to right occasionally wouldn’t be the worst alternative in the world, given the other middle infield options available. Either way, I’m not ready to say so long to Polanco just yet.