April 29, 2014
Three National Leaguers in the News
Thoughts on three young National Leaguers in the news today, plus a bonus item about the Blue Jays:
Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco Promotion Watch
It’s no surprise, then, that “When will the Pirates promote Polanco?” is the most popular question in Pittsburgh, rivaled only by “Why won’t the Pirates promote Polanco today?” Tribune-Review Pirates beat writer Rob Biertempfel became the latest to ask on Sunday, when he spoke to general manager Neal Huntington. Huntington, who said that service time considerations are “not a driving factor” in the team’s deliberations about when to call up a prospect, insisted that the Pirates have performance-based concerns about Polanco. What those concerns are, though, he was unwilling to say.
Now, we know how this typically works: teams often keep their prospects in the minors until the Super Two deadline has passed, sparing themselves an extra year of arbitration. Until then, they’re forced to stall, and to explain why they’re stalling. To avoid negative PR and problems with the Players Association, GMs usually indulge in a little light fabrication, but the struggles of Snider and Tabata and the blistering start by Polanco aren’t making the explanations any easier for Huntington. Given how well Polanco has played, staying light on specifics might be the best choice. As Biertempfel noted, though, Huntington’s refusal to list Polanco’s weaknesses on the grounds that tipped-off teams could exploit them is a stretch, given that the Pirates’ opponents have had plenty of time to come to their own conclusions about how Polanco can be beaten.
Huntington justified his non-answer by claiming he’d been burned by his forthright response when similar questions were asked about Andrew McCutchen, who made his major-league debut in 2009 on June 4 (right around when we might see Polanco) after hitting .318/.423/.561 in 26 Grapefruit League games and .303/.361/.493 in 49 games for Indianapolis. After combing Google for Huntington quotes about McCutchen from 2009 spring training—when McCutchen was almost exactly as old as Polanco is now—I came up with only one, from a March 31 story about McCutchen’s demotion to the minors (and the Pirates’ possible financial motivations for making that move):
It’s possible that Huntington is referring to another interview, though that seems to be all the internet has to offer on the subject from February–April of 2009. If that’s all it is, it’s hard to see how he or McCutchen could’ve been hurt by those comments. McCutchen went 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts at Triple-A that season, then 22-for-27 in the majors. And if bunting his way out of slumps was a weakness, it wasn’t a bad one, since he produced right away.
Every 22-year-old could get better at something, so Huntington’s comments are technically true. And while he won’t elaborate, Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor and hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo already have, citing Polanco’s baserunning, comfort level in right, and situational awareness at the plate as areas in need of some refinement. Polanco is 4-for-8 in stolen-base attempts this season, so sure, perhaps he could improve in that respect (although he has a 78.4 career success rate). Still, it seems unlikely that Polanco wouldn’t be better than the Pirates’ current big-league options, or that he’s so raw that promoting him now would endanger his development. Scouts our own Mark Anderson spoke with recently struggled to come up with a weakness, citing same-side breaking balls but acknowledging that they were nitpicking. One thing we know: they got no help from Huntington.
Was Wong Wronged?
However, Wong started only six of the Cardinals’ next 13 games, and his seasonal line dipped to .225/.276/.268. That performance—or maybe more accurately, the process behind that performance—convinced the Cardinals that Wong needed a Triple-A timeout. Here’s the explanation we have, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel:
There’s no glaring sign in the stats that Wong was overmatched. His plate discipline stats didn’t seem out of whack: He had an above-average contact rate and a below-average chase rate, and five walks (one intentional) to his nine strikeouts, a good ratio in these whiff-happy times. True, he had one of the highest groundball rates in baseball and had showed next to no power, which could be indicative of a deeper problem, but it could also be an artifact of a sample of 76 PA, some of them in part-time (and therefore higher-pressure) play. Of course, if we’re going to play the small-sample game, we could also mention that Mark Ellis has yet to have an extra-base hit.
It’s curious that the Cardinals would commit to Wong over the winter, make sure Ellis accepted a secondary role, and then send Wong back to Memphis for more seasoning so soon after his impressive spring. (Score another point for “spring stats don’t mean much.”) One could argue that signing Ellis betrayed some reservations on St. Louis’ part, though the veteran’s price tag made him a good deal regardless.
We can't say why Wong couldn’t try to shorten his swing at the major-league level like any other player who gets into a mechanical funk—by looking at video, taking extra BP, or scheduling an extra session with one of the team’s two hitting coaches. For all we know, though, Wong has spent the last week showing more worrisome signs, like blasting this song on the stereo or slowly banging his head against his locker whenever the clubhouse was closed to reporters. Clearly, this is a case where we have to trust that the team—particularly this team—knows what’s best for a player whom it drafted and developed.
Does Bryce Harper Not Bleed?
Hopes for Harper were high entering this season—so high, in fact, that he narrowly edged out Andrew McCutchen as BP’s preseason pick for NL MVP. Expectations were almost as high for Harper’s team, as 38 of 40 BP staffers picked the Nationals to win the NL East and six staffers picked them to win the World Series, giving them more support than any other team but the Dodgers. In 2013, Harper was BP’s second-most-popular pick for NL MVP, and the Nats were the consensus World Series favorite.
That Harper MVP pick isn’t looking so hot. He’s off to a middling start with the bat, perhaps (but not necessarily) because his injuries have continued to impair his performance. And now he’s out until July, which means he’d have to have a Hanley Ramirez second half to warrant consideration. It doesn’t look like this season will bring the big Bryce Harper breakout we’ve been awaiting ever since that Sports Illustrated cover.
No one player determines the direction of a team. Nevertheless, as Harper has gone, so have the Nats. Like their franchise player, the Nationals gave every indication that 2012 was the beginning of an enduring stretch of dominance. And like their franchise player, they’ve failed to make the most of their tremendous talent in the season-plus since, as injuries and bad bench bats have held them back despite strong pitching and a lineup that (when intact) is largely without holes. This year’s Nats, now under new management, are on an 87-win pace, which wouldn’t make for much of a rebound from their disappointing 86-win performance last season. And for the next 6-8 weeks, they’ll be counting on Nate McLouth and a three-headed Steven Souza/Scott Hairston/Kevin Frandsen platoon partner to fill Harper’s flashy footwear.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether the obvious talent of both Harper and his team blinded us to the potential cost of the intensity that drove Harper to the top and the many things that went right for Washington in 2012, not to mention the injury risk that threatens to derail any roster. But some perspective is in order: Harper, who’s already made 1185 major-league plate appearances, is younger than either Wong or Polanco, so we’re a long, long way away from having to face the fact that he may never fulfill the prophecy and become the NL’s answer to Mike Trout. Likewise, it’s too early to accept that those 98-win Nats are gone for good. It could be that both are just a bit behind schedule.
Goins, Goins, Gone