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Gregory Polanco an exercise in ‘what could have been’ for Pirates

Gregory Polanco’s legacy as a Pittsburgh Pirate.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Gregory Polanco defines what it’s like to think you have something exceptional and unique before having it taken away in a slow, drawn-out process that seems to lag worse than unstable internet.

Polanco looked to have had all the makings of a budding star throughout the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Minor League system, becoming a franchise cornerstone next to 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen and Gold-Glover Starling Marte.

Dubbed the “Outfield of Dreams,” Polanco, Marte, and McCutchen manned the Pirates outfield from the middle of 2014 up until McCutchen was traded to San Francisco after the 2017 season following his two worst seasons in the black and gold.

MLB Pipeline’s 13th-best player in the entire Minor Leagues heading into the 2014 season, Polanco lead a group of young talented Buccos including Jameson Taillon (16), Tyler Glasnow (27), Austin Meadows (45), Alen Hansen (67), and Josh Bell (74) as the team’s top prospect.

He collected one of the biggest hits of his MLB career on July 12, 2015, in a tight NL Central battle with St. Louis to put the Pirates, you guessed it, “2.5 out, at the All-Star Break!”

Poised for a breakout, Polanco signed a five-year extension in April 2016 with the possibility of becoming a seven-year deal due to two club options, totaling $58 million over seven seasons.

What could have been?

Polanco loves Pittsburgh. The fans. The city. The organization. His teammates. But his production on the field is what ultimately made the Pirates' decision to release the 29-year-old right fielder a logical one.

Polanco signals the official changing of the guard for the Pirates organization and roster, becoming the last member of the 2015 Wild Card team to depart the team, officially marking a new era of players set to make their own legacy with no prior “Buctober” veterans to lean on.

The lefty from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic was once regarded as a 5-tool player who idolized Roberto Clemente, playing the same position with untapped potential hoping to be the Pirates’ best right fielder since Clemente and Dave Parker over 30 years ago.

Greg hit a total of 41 home runs with 289 RBI, 143 stolen bases, and a .285 batting average in the Minors before making his big-league debut on June 10, 2014, in one of the most anticipated Pirates debuts since the turn of the century. Polanco’s best season in the Minors came in 2012, slashing .325/.388/.522 with a .910 OPS, recording career highs in home runs (16) and RBI (85) in 116 games in A-ball.

Four years later in 2016, Polanco produced his most productive season to date as a member of the Big-League club, registering 22 homers and 86 RBI in 144 games, also looking strong in 2018 with a career-high .839 OPS.

Polanco’s career was filled with ups and downs, injuries and strikeouts, poor defensive development, and flashes of greatness that never found its way into a repeated motion at PNC Park or elsewhere in the Majors.

Were the expectations too high? Did injuries ultimately derail stardom? Are the Pirates to blame for Polanco’s lack of development and overall consistency?

The answer to these three questions points to yes, with a hint of bad luck sprinkled in to further derail a career on the right track early on.

Strikeouts and putting the ball in play were typical issues “El Coffee” faced during his career, but after an acute left shoulder dislocation due to an awkward slide into second base in mid-September 2018, Polanco never regained his previous form, to which fans thought he could still improve on and become a more balanced hitter.

The injury hindered the old Polanco from ever returning to the lineup, subtracting from his power potential, and he became a defensive liability unable to make long throws from the outfield.

Polanco never made an All-Star Game, never won a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove, or stolen-base title in eight seasons in the black and gold.

He never reached the lofty expectations brought upon him by fans and some members of the media to carry a Pirates franchise coming off of three playoff appearances into a second level of playoff sustainability, but maybe the expectations were set too high from the start.

The Pirates deteriorated a veteran pitching staff, parted ways with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, and watched Andrew McCutchen turn from an MVP to thinking he should play right field instead, thus shifting Polanco in the process.

Polanco dealt with these obstacles like the remainder of the team, and he couldn’t carry the freight like originally predicted years earlier.

It’s sad to see how events transpired throughout the years, especially given the love for Polanco coming up and entered into two pennant chases, but injuries, strikeouts, and an ever-so-frequent lack of development from Pirates players over the past five seasons has brought us to where we stand now.

Polanco finished his Bucco career slashing .241/.309/.409 with a below-average .718 OPS in 823 total games from 2014-2021, blasting 96 long-balls and driving in 362 in 2883 at-bats in a Pirate uniform.

It’s hard to say goodbye to Polanco because it’s saying farewell to the last Pirates playoff stretch in 20 years. It was also a back-and-forth situation due to him reportedly being on waivers a week ago to return and hit well, ultimately to be outright released now once and for all.

Big Greg and the Pirates have separated but still sit firmly in similar positions and circumstances, looking to pick up the pieces of three-straight broken seasons and rebuild their images for a brighter future.

I’ll still honor my “Outfield of Dreams” shirt proudly and keep it hung up in my own closet rafters to always remember better days that were and those still yet to come.