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April 29, 2014

Overthinking It

Three National Leaguers in the News

by Ben Lindbergh

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Thoughts on three young National Leaguers in the news today, plus a bonus item about the Blue Jays:

Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco Promotion Watch
As Daniel Rathman pointed out in today’s What You Need to Know, the Pirates—whose shutout loss to St. Louis on Sunday dropped them to 10-16 and (now) nine games back in the NL Central—aren’t hitting. A big part of Pittsburgh’s problems at the plate has been the team’s lack of production from right field, where Travis Snider, trade chip Jose Tabata, and Josh Harrison (for one plate appearance) have combined for a .221/.289/.279 triple-slash line. As Dan also observed, the Pirates’ top healthy prospect, Gregory Polanco, plays right field for Triple-A Indianapolis, where he’s hitting .400/.460/.644. It doesn’t take Branch Rickey to connect the dots and conclude that the team’s greatest minor-league strength could be the solution to one of its major-league weaknesses.

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.

He’s continuing to refine some of the intricacies of his game. Somebody asked the other day for a detailed list of what he’s working on. When Andrew (McCutchen) was coming up, I gave a detailed list as to what he was working on, then watched major league teams attack those weaknesses I’d identified in spring training. So, I’m not going to give you a detailed script that opposing teams can attack when Gregory gets here.

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):

"There's no question Andrew came into this camp prepared to show us something, and he did that," Huntington said. "But work remains, and we have to look at the whole body of work."

This offseason, management stressed better patience at the plate, as well as some small-ball elements aimed at having him be a leadoff man in Pittsburgh.

"He slowly but surely has ticked off a lot of the elements we wanted to see from him," Huntington said. "We still have to work on the base-stealing, on the bunting, so that, when he does struggle, he can pull that third baseman in and find his way on base."

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?
That sense of unease you woke up with but can’t quite place comes from an unfamiliar activity: questioning the Cardinals. After Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, St. Louis sent Kolten Wong, the team’s second baseman of both the future and, from all offseason indications, the present, to Triple-A Memphis and called up Greg Garcia to serve as a backup/platoon partner for Mark Ellis, who’d begun to steal some of Wong’s playing time two weeks into the season. Wong, who ranked no. 33 on our preseason top 101 prospects list and rated no. 2 on the Cardinals’ team top 10 (which declared him low risk and major-league ready) tore up spring training to the tune of a .375/.434/.646 line and started 12 of the team’s first 13 games, hitting .255/.327/.319—nothing special, but not, in itself, a reason to bail on a player who had just been entrusted with the position.

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:

Matheny had noted over the weekend that Wong’s swing, which had been refined in the spring after he started poorly, had expanded and was too long.

Before the game, Wong agreed.

“I think I’ve kind of fallen back into that drift where I have more movement (in the swing),” he said.

But he said, “I’m not doubting myself at all. I’m not going to pressure myself anymore. I’m tired of it. When I get my chance to play, I’m just going to have fun. Whatever happens, happens.”

Matheny has seen Wong be too hard on himself at several junctures this spring.

“He hasn’t had a whole lot of struggle throughout his career,” Matheny said this weekend. “You’ve got to figure out how to get through it.

“Without question, he’s going to be his own toughest evaluator. But he’s getting better at that, by the way. He’s better now than he was in spring training. He might be faking part of that. Good for him. That’s part of the process, too.

“When he’s that hard on himself, it makes it more difficult to get through these tough runs.”

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?
In the wake of the news that Bryce Harper will have surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that he tore while sliding headfirst into third base last Friday, his hustle and health are today’s top topics. Harper had already missed time this month with a quadriceps strain, and when pinned up on the bulletin board alongside last October’s left knee surgery, multiple painful collisions with the wall last season, and a bloody bat destruction and hamstring strain in 2011, among other day-to-day ailments, it doesn’t take a history with hallucinogenics to make the left fielder’s latest problem look like part of an injury-prone pattern, perhaps driven by his uncompromising style of play.

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
It’s not about a National League player, but as discussed on today’s podcast, “Jays to bring up Getz, option Goins to Buffalo” is one of the saddest headlines you’ll see. After receiving a combined .216/.258/.297 line from their second basemen in 2013, the Blue Jays came into the year expecting to get something out of Ryan Goins, whom PECOTA projected for a .230 TAv (top comp: Jeff Bianchi). The projection system looked at the Blue Jays’ second-base situation and foresaw the sort of abyss that destroys seasons, but new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, a sabermetric favorite, thought Goins was a few mechanical tweaks away from being good enough to stay in the lineup. Sixty-six plate appearances later, Goins has a .150/.203/.217 line and a ticket back to Triple-A, and the Blue Jays—with Maicer Izturis out for most of the season—are going to Chris Getz, one of the worst hitters of the last 30 years. At this point, we can’t be far from a trade for Johnny Giavotella (Triple-A line: .355/.403/.516) and a reenactment of the Royals’ dance of death at second over the last few seasons. Reminder: Stephen Drew is still a free agent.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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