Bucs showing faith in slumping Polanco

September 16th, 2020

The Pirates are standing by Gregory Polanco.

It’s been a rough year at the plate for Pittsburgh’s right fielder, who entered Wednesday with a .138/.194/.301 slash line after whiffing three times in the Pirates’ 4-1 loss to the Reds on Tuesday night. Polanco has 56 strikeouts with only 17 hits in 123 at-bats this season, the most glaring slump in the Majors’ least-productive lineup.

Rather than giving him a few days off to work toward getting right, manager Derek Shelton said the Pirates will keep playing Polanco – this year and next.

“We have to continue to get him out there. We have to continue to make sure he gets his at-bats and works through it,” Shelton said. “He’s going to work through it, and he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing -- not only at the end of this year, but into next year.”

Polanco, 29, is the team’s highest-paid active player, and he’s set to return next season with a guaranteed salary of $11.6 million. He’s had his ups and downs in the Majors, but he has never struggled to this extent -- especially not when he’s been healthy, like he appears to be now. The last time Polanco was truly healthy before this season, he posted an .839 OPS with 23 homers and 81 RBIs in 2018.

General manager Ben Cherington mentioned health first in his defense of Polanco.

“He’s healthy, feels good physically. He’s moving around well. He’s strong. He's hitting the ball really hard when he makes contact, which is encouraging,” Cherington said. “His swing decisions are not different from when he's been successful. He's missing on some fastballs. I'm not sure anyone can say exactly why that is. But it would be reasonable for me to think that a very strange year like this might impact [him].”

The Pirates were encouraged by Polanco’s health, above all, in Spring Training and at the start of Summer Camp. He tested positive for COVID-19 during Summer Camp, however, which cost him valuable at-bats and forced him to miss the Bucs’ first series of the season.

Initially, the club pointed to the stop-and-start nature of his preseason as the source of his struggles. Cherington also mentioned, not specific to Polanco, that players’ “top-line performance outcomes” this year are still “pretty noisy” due to the small sample size of a shortened season.

“Nobody doesn't want to perform; certainly, he doesn't. He's coming in here every day, getting back after it with his work and has been a good teammate,” Cherington said. “He's still really young, and at a point in his career where there's no reason to think that he can't be a really good player again. I would expect him to be. I look forward to him doing that in a Pirates uniform next year.”

Around the horn

• Shelton said there is “a good possibility” the Pirates will use a six-man rotation over the final 10 days of the season, but the club hasn’t “fully talked it out” yet. They have six healthy starting pitchers: Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, JT Brubaker and Mitch Keller.

After Brubaker in Wednesday’s series finale in Cincinnati, the Pirates have Brault lined up to pitch Thursday, followed by Williams and Kuhl in Friday’s doubleheader vs. the Cardinals at PNC Park.

• Cherington said prospect Oneil Cruz, who has been working out at the alternate training site in Altoona, Pa., will return to the Dominican Republic soon and could play winter ball to get more at-bats. The 6-foot-7 Cruz, who advanced to Double-A last season, has continued to work out at shortstop in Altoona.

• While some organizations have had layoffs in their baseball operations departments recently, Cherington said the Pirates have not made any such moves as of late. Pittsburgh let go of approximately 15 baseball ops employees in late June, beginning a restructuring process that will continue in Cherington’s first full offseason on the job.

“Frankly we are focusing our energy, in terms of staff, going toward 2021. I think that we’ve had some of those conversations,” Cherington said. “Hopefully we’ll get to more of them formally soon. We’ll have some hiring to do, too, this fall and offseason, some important hiring. … There’s always going to be some amount of change, but I would say that certainly the majority of our focus is really looking forward to 2021 and the people that are going to be part of the Pirates’ baseball ops.”