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Will healthy Polanco put it all together?

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Feel-good stories abound in both the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues – the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal aside – but perhaps no bigger feel-good story emanated from Bradenton, Fla., over the weekend than Gregory Polanco’s official arrival at Pirates’ camp.

Polanco, whose 2019 season was cut short by complications following offseason shoulder surgery, pronounced himself fit and told reporters he felt “way better” than he had a year ago at this time.

The Pirates medical staff said earlier that he had no restrictions on his spring training work, although they also said they’d be monitoring him closely, given what happened last year. To refresh your collective memory, Polanco was on his way to a career year in 2018 when an awkward slide into second base put an end to that in the first week of September. Polanco at the time had amassed 23 home runs and driven in 81 to go with a .340 on-base percentage and an .839 OPS in 461 at-bats. It looked like he was finally living up to the potential that many had dreamed about since his early days in the Pirates system.

Last year, though, was pretty much a lost season. Although some had estimated he might not be ready to return to fulltime duty until June, Polanco made it back to the Pirates lineup in late April and actually appeared to be fine – for a while. After holding his own through mid-May, he began to slump and was placed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. Ultimately he was shut down for the season after just 42 games and 153 at-bats, in which he batted just .242 with six home runs and 17 RBIs and an OPS of .726.

Polanco told reporters in Bradenton over the weekend that he really had no offseason. He underwent extensive physical therapy, splitting time between Miami, the Dominican Republic and Pirate City, and all of the work appears to have paid off.

“Last year, it was like, ‘Um, I don’t really know,’” he told Adam Berry of mlb.com, noting that his shoulder procedure was the first time he’d undergone any type of surgery. “Now, I can tell you, I’m healthy.”

Having a healthy Polanco in the lineup should add some punch to a lineup that was sorely lacking in power a year ago. Still just 28, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound left-handed hitter shared some rather modest goals with reporters, saying that it’s all about availability.

“I just want to play the whole season,” said Polanco, who will take part in the club’s first full-squad workout today. “That means a lot for me. That’s my main goal right now – to stay healthy. If you’re not healthy, you can do nothing else.”

No one knows that better than Polanco. He’s had trouble doing that in his career, having played more than 130 games only once during his last four seasons. His career high in games played came in his first full season in the big leagues, in 2015, when he appeared in 153 games during his age-23 campaign.

Many Pirates fans already have thrown in the towel on the towering outfielder, given his lack of production and propensity for getting hurt. But I remain bullish on Polanco, convinced that this will be the year he finally does, indeed, stay healthy and put together numbers that are commensurate with his physical tools. Not everyone hits the big leagues and immediately pops. It takes some, and particularly some sluggers, a little while to get going. A column earlier in the offseason referenced Jose Bautista, and while it would be ridiculous to compare the two, he is an example of someone who broke out rather late in his career.

Another slugger who took a little time to get untracked came up with the Minnesota Twins and never hit more than 20 home runs until his age-27 season, when he was dealt to Boston. That year, David Ortiz erupted for 31 home runs, drove in 101 and checked in with a .961 OPS on his way to a career that concluded with 541 home runs, 1,768 RBIs and a .931 OPS.

I’m not predicting that Polanco will be the second coming of either Bautista or Ortiz. But the physical tools are there, and so is the experience. He’s always had a fairly good eye, and now that he appears to be fully healthy, I’m convinced this will be the year we finally see all that Gregory Polanco has to offer.