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The Gregory Polanco problem

MLB: San Diego Padres at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The multitude of changes to the Pittsburgh Pirates management team and coaching staff, combined with rumors surrounding center fielder Starling Marte and second baseman Adam Frazier have stolen much of the focus for fans so far this offseason in terms of news. With the 2020 season quickly approaching, these storylines and others such as the search for a starting catcher have rightly grabbed the attention of Pirate fans everywhere. But there is another glaring issue related to the success of the 2020 Pirates and beyond that warrants a serious discussion: right fielder Gregory Polanco’s shoulder.

Polanco’s surprising early return to the field in 2019 gave many a reason to be optimistic about his health and ability to perform in the outfield and at the plate. Appearing in just 42 games over the season’s entirety, Polanco was hampered both defensively and offensively, unable to build on a promising 2018 campaign where he amassed 2.5 WAR and slugged .499. His -0.2 WAR in 2019 was a significant step backward, and indicative that his injury may be a cause for concern moving forward.

Rushing Polanco back could have had more serious consequences; another labral tear could have spelled the end of his career (I’ve been there). The flashes of his former self in his limited 2019 campaign are reasons for hope in 2020, and Pirates’ medical director Todd Tomczyck seems confident that the corner outfielder will be ready for spring training. But, he has cautioned the team and fan base that Polanco’s shoulder will be a recurring nuisance throughout the rest of his career, something that will need to be “managed.” This information casts a dark cloud over what kind of player Polanco will be in the future, and whether or not he’ll ever be able to build on his 2018 campaign.

With Marté likely to depart the team before the start of the 2020 season, the Buccos will have to look to their 28 year old former top prospect to carry a load he has never had to concern himself with in his career up until this point: a leader both on and off the field. Polanco will be counted on to provide both offensive and defensive production as well as guidance to a retooling Pirates’ team.

If his injury continues to hamper his performance and his leadership does not take hold with a young Bucco squad, Polanco’s days in the black and gold will be numbered.