Aug. 24: Polanco went unclaimed on waivers and has been returned to the active roster, Mike Persak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports (via Twitter). He’s not in today’s lineup but remains with the club.
Aug. 22, 8:14pm: Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says that, if Polanco goes unclaimed, he will remain with the Pirates. (Twitter link 1, 2 and 3.) This seems to imply that, if Polanco clears waivers, the team will choose not to outright him off the roster. According to Mackey, placing Polanco on waivers was about giving him the chance to play for a contender, if any are interested. Although, speculatively speaking, the notoriously thrifty Pirates would also be delighted to get the $2.4MM off their books, as well as the $3MM buyout on his 2022 option.
7:16pm: The Pirates have placed Gregory Polanco on outright waivers, according to Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic. Polanco is playing on a salary of $11.6MM this year, with about $2.4MM of that still to be paid out. Any team claiming him would be responsible for that remaining salary. But if he goes unclaimed, Polanco would be able to elect free agency. At that point, any club could sign him and just pay him the prorated league minimum, with the Pirates being on the hook for the remainder.
Whether he is claimed or not, this seems to be the end of Polanco’s time as a Pirate, an unceremonious conclusion to a relationship that once had such promise for both parties. Originally signed by Pittsburgh in 2009 as a 17-year-old, Polanco debuted in 2014 and, after two solid seasons, showed enough promise that the club agreed to give him a five-year extension, which guaranteed him $35MM, in April of 2016. At the time, Polanco’s line of .249/.316/.369 was nothing outstanding, but it was expected that the 24-year-old would grow into more power and provide more offensive production to pair with his excellent defense and speed. With the team having already extended Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen, it was thought that Polanco could be the third piece of a superb outfield that they could build on for years to come.
For the remainder of the 2016 season and the first two years of the deal, everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Over those three seasons, Polanco hit 56 home runs and stole 37 bases, producing an overall line of .255/.324/.455. That was good enough for a wRC of 105 and 5.3 fWAR. Thanks in no small part to Polanco, the Pirates qualified for the National League Wild Card Game three years in a row, from 2013 to 2015. Unfortunately for both he and the team, it’s been mostly downhill since then. In September of 2018, Polanco underwent surgery for a dislocated shoulder and hasn’t been able to play at anything approaching that level since.
In 2019, Polanco was only able to get into 42 games and, even when on the field, had his line slide to .242/.301/.425, a wRC+ of 87. With the shoulder issues still ailing him, Polanco went on the IL June 22nd and didn’t make it back on the field for the rest of the year. Polanco returned in 2020 but saw his numbers slip even farther, to a dismal line of .153/.214/.325 during the COVID-shortened season. That amounted to a wRC+ of 41.
This year, Polanco has bounced back from that nadir, but only slightly. In 101 games, he has put up a line of .198/.277/.343, which adds up to a wRC+ of 67. With the Pirates sitting on a record of 44-80 and firmly into rebuild mode, it seems they wanted to allocate Polanco’s playing time over the season’s final weeks to players who will be auditioning to be part of the club’s future plans.
Polanco now seems destined to move on from the only organization he’s ever known. Despite three straight disappointing seasons, he won’t be turning 30 until next month, meaning there’s potentially plenty of time for him to turn things around and re-energize his career. However, it may be hard for him to get a lengthy opportunity to do so this year. Competing teams will be giving playing time to players with a more recent track record of success, whereas rebuilding team will want to use that time to showcase younger building blocks, as the Pirates are doing now.