It’s been a swift decline for the now-30-year-old Polanco, who once ranked among the game’s elite prospects and was seen as a key building block in Pittsburgh. The longtime Pirates outfielder decimated Triple-A pitching while rising through the minor league ranks and eventually drawing praise as the No. 10 and No. 13 prospect in the entire game, respectively, on the 2014 rankings of Baseball America and MLB.com.
While Polanco did have a few solid seasons in the big leagues, including two with 20-plus homers and 10-plus steals (2016 and 2018), he only ever had one season where he was a decidedly well above-average offensive performer (2018). That year’s .254/.340/.499 slash (123 wRC+) feels like a distant memory, as Polanco has limped to a combined .203/.270/.364 batting line in 723 plate appearances since. His once minimal strikeout rate — he fanned at just a 14.6% clip in 2017 — has skyrocketed to 30.2% in the past three seasons.
In fairness to Polanco, injuries have undoubtedly taken their toll on his body and played a role in sapping his production. While he was mostly healthy through the 2017 season, save for a couple of minor hamstring strains, the 2018 campaign marked the beginning of more serious physical troubles. That September, while playing out the final weeks of the best year of his career, Polanco both dislocated his shoulder and sustained a significant bone bruise in his left knee on an awkward slide into second base while legging out a double.
The shoulder injury required surgery and came with a recovery timetable of up to seven months. Polanco missed the first three weeks of the 2019 season but clearly wasn’t right upon being activated. He appeared in just 42 games over the next seven weeks before returning to the injured list with inflammation in that surgically repaired shoulder, and he never made it back to the field that year.
Polanco continued to receive opportunities in Pittsburgh, due in no small part to both that prior prospect pedigree and the fact that he’d inked a five-year, $35MM extension early in the 2016 season. The Bucs had a pair of club options that would’ve covered the 2022 and 2023 seasons, so there was good reason to give Polanco every opportunity to recapture some of his pre-surgery form. That didn’t happen, and Pittsburgh finally released Polanco following a DFA late in the 2021 season. He signed a minor league deal with Toronto on Aug. 31 but didn’t end up playing in the Majors with the Jays; he did, however, post a huge .374/.436/.747 batting line in 101 plate appearances with Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, perhaps lending some hope for more productive days ahead.
If Polanco does head to NPB and does manage to rebound, he’s still young enough that a Major League comeback is plenty viable. (He won’t turn 31 until Sept. 14 of next season.) A strong year in NPB could also simply open the door for a raise and/or multi-year deal to remain overseas. At the very least, signing in NPB would lock in a guaranteed 2022 salary for Polanco, which wasn’t likely to happen in Major League Baseball, where he’d presumably have been in line for a non-roster deal with an invite to Spring Training somewhere.