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Rejuvenated Polanco returns: 'I’m healthy'

@adamdberry
February 15, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. – For Gregory Polanco, not having to report early to Spring Training was a good thing. An on-time arrival means he’s finally healthy. Polanco strolled into the Pirate City clubhouse on Saturday morning with a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and a clean bill

BRADENTON, Fla. – For Gregory Polanco, not having to report early to Spring Training was a good thing. An on-time arrival means he’s finally healthy.

Polanco strolled into the Pirate City clubhouse on Saturday morning with a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and a clean bill of health for Spring Training. The 28-year-old right fielder has moved past the left shoulder issues that lingered long after his season-ending surgery in September 2018.

Polanco tried to rush back into the lineup late last April, but that likely did more harm than good as he wound up playing only 42 games due to recurring shoulder inflammation. He knew it wasn’t a good idea to play at less than full strength, but he wanted to rejoin the Pirates’ injury-riddled lineup as soon as possible.

This time around, though, Polanco can tell a difference in the way he feels. He’s hitting without restrictions and throwing harder than he could at any point last year. The Pirates might decide to monitor his workload out of caution, but Polanco will tell you this isn’t like last year.

“Oh, way better. Way better,” Polanco said, smiling and waving his arms for emphasis. “Last year, it was like, ‘Um, I don’t really know.’ It was my first-ever surgery. Going through that, I didn’t know how to adjust to that. But now, I’m healthy. Now, I can tell you, I’m healthy.

“Right now, we can throw. We can go hit. Whatever. I’m healthy right now. I’m very happy. I’m thankful that I’m healthy and I’m here. That’s why I got here today. If I wouldn’t have been healthy, I would have been here like two weeks ago. But I’m healthy now and I’m happy. I’m just happy to have that feeling back, that confidence. Just thankful, man.”

Polanco didn’t necessarily have an “offseason.” When the season ended, he began physical therapy six days a week. He trained in his native Dominican Republic and with other professional athletes in Miami, making frequent drives to Pirate City to check in with the club’s training staff. Even when his rehab program ended in January, he continued his additional shoulder care -- stretching, massages, strength and mobility work.

“The guy’s extremely talented. The fact that he’s coming into camp healthy is probably the most important thing,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He’s one of the guys that I’m most excited about to get into camp because of the fact that we have a guy who’s that talented and now he’s finally at the point where he’s healthy.”

The last time Polanco could say he was healthy, he was one of the Pirates’ most productive hitters. He slashed .254/.340/.499 with 23 homers, 81 RBIs and 12 steals over 130 games in 2018, the best offensive season of his career. To support a lineup lacking true home run threats beyond Josh Bell, the Pirates will need Polanco to regain that form.

The only way to do that, Polanco knows, is to stay on the field. He hasn’t played more than 130 games since 2016, so it’s no surprise that good health is his top priority.

“The more I play, for sure, I'm going to get better and can help the team. Right now, I just want to stay healthy and play 150, 140 games, whatever,” Polanco said. “I just want to play the whole season. 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."

As long as he’s healthy, Polanco will join Pittsburgh’s starting outfield alongside Bryan Reynolds in left and Jarrod Dyson in center. The right fielder is the last man standing not only from the much-hyped outfield that included Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte; he’s the only Pirates player remaining from the 2015 National League Wild Card club, the Bucs’ last postseason team.

When the Pirates traded Marte to the D-backs, it hit home for Polanco. He said Marte was “like my brother,” considering how much time they spent together. When Polanco’s mother celebrated her birthday last weekend, Marte attended the party. They’ve already talked about hanging out when the Pirates and D-backs play this season.

His friend’s departure left Polanco as the longest-tenured Pirate, something of an elder statesman who’s still looking to prove himself on the field.

“It is what it is, man. I'm glad that I'm here,” Polanco said. “I'm healthy. I'll be able to play the game I love, man. That's the thing I'm grateful for. Today is the only thing I can control. I can't control the past. I can't control tomorrow. I can control today. I'm glad that I'm here. I'm going to play, and I'm going to have some fun, for sure.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.