With Jorge Polanco, the Mariners add balance, impact, and a bit of risk to the mix
The Mariners deserve credit for adding established bats this offseason - even if there's a tangible risk associated with each acquisition.
The Mariners’ effort to reshape their lineup continued yesterday when the team acquired infielder Jorge Polanco in a trade with the Twins. To get its man, Seattle sent pitchers Justin Topa and Anthony DeSclafani, plus minor-leaguers Gabriel Gonzalez and Darren Bowen to Minnesota.
So, what does Polanco bring to the Mariners? To me, the switch-hitter represents an opportunity to add balance and impact to the lineup, although there is some risk worthy of discussion.
Polanco’s ability to hit from both sides of the plate should give Mariners manager Scott Servais additional lineup flexibility from a handedness perspective. This should become increasingly evident once we review the following, which illustrates the handedness of notable position players on the current roster.
As it stands today, Seattle projects to have two left-handed hitting Opening Day starters - J.P. Crawford and Luke Raley. Other lefty contributors expected to receive appreciable playing time include Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas.
From the other side of the plate, we should see a lot of Julio Rodríguez, Mitch Haniger, Mitch Garver, and Ty France. The right-handed supporting cast will likely be infielder Luis Urías, utility-man Dylan Moore, and backup catcher Seby Zavala.
And as icing on the cake, Servais can insert Polanco and fellow switch-hitter Cal Raleigh into the lineup in a way that offsets attempts by opposing managers to establish a handedness advantage with their bullpen. Utility-man Sam Haggerty also figures to be in the mix.
Naturally, the majority of Polanco’s plate appearances have come from the left side of the plate since the league is dominated by right-handed pitchers. Still, it’s worth noting his platoon splits have been relatively neutral over the last three seasons.
Polanco’s Platoon Slash (2021-23)
v RHP - 980 PA/.250 AVG/.344 OBP/.477 SLG
v LHP - 452 PA/.266 AVG/.310 OBP/.433 SLG
From a production standpoint, Polanco’s career 111 wRC+ suggests he’s been 11-percent better than the average hitter during 10 big-league seasons. For fans of conventional measurements, the native of the Dominican Republic has a .269 AVG/.335 OBP/.446 SLG slash-line in 3,529 plate appearances.
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. League-average is always 100. Therefore, a wRC+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 wRC+ would be 20-percent below average.
More recently, Polanco produced another solid year with the 2023 Twins. His slash-line looks very similar to his career numbers. With the exception of strikeout percentage, the 10-year veteran was better than the MLB average in every category listed below.
On the surface, Polanco’s 14 home runs last year may not seem impressive. Fair enough, but consider this morsel. His 4.1-percent home run rate over 343 plate appearances was much better than the MLB average (3.2-percent). Furthermore, the only Mariners with higher home run rates were Raleigh (5.3-percent) and Rodríguez (4.3-percent).
Still, Polanco’s arrival could end up having a much greater meaning for the Mariners. Seattle may have finally found the productive second baseman it’s been searching for since the team traded Robinson Canó following the 2018 campaign.
To see what I mean, take a look at the following table. It illustrates Seattle’s second base wRC+ and corresponding MLB ranking for each of the last 10 seasons. As you can see, the position has been woefully unproductive since Canó’s departure.
Okay, considering the struggles of the last two Opening Day second baseman, Adam Frazier and Kolten Wong, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the 800-pound gorilla known as T-Mobile Park. How will the venue affect Polanco’s bat?
It’s impossible to know for certain. But it’s reasonable to expect the ballpark at the corner of Edgar & Dave suppresses Polanco’s offense to some degree - just as it does for most Mariner hitters.
Remember, Statcast park factors suggest Seattle’s home field is the worst hitting environment for left-handed hitters and second-worst for right-handed hitters. Conversely, Target Field was 20th for righty bats and 12th for lefties.
Having said that, I did find an encouraging nugget for Mariners fans. Polanco’s documented success during inclement weather. A factor, which certainly matters in the Pacific Northwest.
FanGraphs tells us that, over the past three seasons, Polanco has the fourth-most appearances (132) in games with a start-time temperature under 50 degrees. The three hitters ahead of him - Willy Adames (153), Rafael Devers (146), and Alex Verdugo (145). Overall, Polanco has performed quite well under these conditions.
Polanco’s Production in Cold Weather (2021-23)
.265 AVG/.341 OBP/.436 SLG
Another selling point for Polanco - a knack for crushing fastballs. Over the past two seasons, he boasts a .401 wOBA against the pitch group, which ranks 18th-best among 332 hitters seeing over 1,000 fastballs. Just ahead of him, new teammate Mitch Garver (.402).
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how he reached rather than treating all on-base events as equals, as OBP does. For instance, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. MLB league-average wOBA last year = .318
Polanco also enjoyed success against offspeed offerings with a .324 wOBA, which tied for 27th-best with Cody Bellinger. That said, he did scuffle when confronted with breaking pitches. His .238 wOBA was noticeably lower than the .278 MLB average.
Holding a club option on Polanco for the 2025 season is another positive factor regarding this trade. Assuming he lives up to management’s expectations, it’s reasonable to assume the team would retain the 2019 All-Star for another year. After all, the trade package required to land Polanco included a key contributor from last year’s bullpen (Topa) and MLB Pipeline’s number-77 prospect (Gonzalez).
Another important consideration with the Polanco acquisition is it adds an established performer with postseason experience. Having players with a firm understanding of the complexities associated with an extended playoff race and meaningful October baseball matters. At least I believe it does. Polanco checks this block with five postseason appearances as a Twin.
Polanco also possesses some positional versatility, which is nice. He projects to play second base with the Mariners, although there is also shortstop and third base experience on his résumé. In fact, the former All-Star has more career starts at shortstop (473) than second base (267) or third base (20) combined.
Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that the Twins primarily used Polanco at second base (150 starts) and a little bit at the hot corner (11 starts) over the last two seasons.
So far, we’ve mentioned a lot of great stuff about Polanco. But it’s important to cover a pair of reasonable concerns regarding a player entering his age-30 season. The first is his defense.
Alright, I realize some of you don’t buy into advanced defensive metrics, which is fine. Full disclosure, I’ve had a tenuous relationship with them in the past. But my confidence in Baseball Savant’s outs above average (OAA) has grown to a point that I’m comfortable with using it. In the case of Polanco, his OAA at second base in 2022-23 didn’t paint an optimistic picture.
Per Statcast, 40 fielders made at least 250 plays at second base during the 2022-23 seasons. Within this group, Polanco’s -14 OAA tied for 39th with Nolan Gorman of the Cardinals. Frazier (-9 OAA) checked in at number-36 with Wong (-11) one spot behind him.
For those of you wanting to learn more about OAA for infielders, I recommend a superb article from 2020 authored by Mike Petriello of MLB. In it, Petriello lays out the factors used to determine infielder OAA in a manner that shouldn’t melt brains.
To be fair, it’s possible Polanco’s poor defensive metrics were a side effect of several lower body injuries suffered by the veteran over the past two seasons. This leads to my second concern with Polanco - health.
For most of his career, Polanco has remained healthy. The greatest interruption to his availability during his first eight big-league seasons was an 80-game PED suspension in 2018. But over the last two years, the injury bug has derailed him several times.
In June 2022, Polanco suffered lower back tightness leading to a 14-game absence. A subsequent left knee injury would cost him the final five weeks of the season.
The same knee malady would delay the beginning of Polanco’s 2023 season until April 21. About a month later, a left hamstring strain sidelined the Dominican for about 10 days. Unfortunately, the same hammy would send him back to the IL after just seven games. This time, Polanco was lost to the Twins for about six weeks. All told, health-related issues cost him approximately 85 days of availability.
Polanco’s recent injury issues are relevant to our conversation. But I believe it’s important to note that he isn’t the only new Mariner with a recent history of availability challenges. In fact, the veteran is one of four major offseason acquisitions to appear in less than 60-percent of his team’s games since the beginning of the 2022 campaign.
Offseason Additions with Limited Availability in 2022-23
It’s worth reiterating that Polanco, along with Garver and Haniger, are on the wrong side of 30. I’m not suggesting these players are ready for the rocking chair. But it’s been well established that Father Time is undefeated when he makes his presence known. Hopefully, he doesn’t make an appearance in 2024.
But wait, there’s more.
Another newcomer, Luke Raley, has yet to play in more than 123 games in a season during his professional career. He accomplished this feat in 2017. Last year, the 29-year-old appeared in 118 contests for Tampa Bay. However, a cervical strain would cost him the final week of the regular season. Even worse, it prevented him from participating in the postseason with the Rays.
Overall, I view the addition of Jorge Polanco as a win for the Mariners’ front office. With Polanco, Seattle gets an established switch-hitter capable of producing from both sides of the plate. Moreover, he fills a void at second base created by the team when it shrewdly dealt Canó over five years ago.
Not only that, the acquisitions of Polanco, Raley, Garver, Haniger, Canzone, Rojas, and Urías since last August should create a more dynamic lineup in 2024. One better prepared to solve the “contact riddle” management identified as its biggest issue with the offense heading into the offseason.
Still, as with any trade involving a 30-something, there’s a chance that things go sideways with Polanco. To me, it’s inconceivable that he’d suddenly crater, as Wong did last year. However, Polanco’s recent spate of lower body injuries could be a bellwether to future availability and productivity challenges. It also creates a shadow of doubt over the team’s latest big acquisition.
Then again, it’s plausible Polanco remains healthy and has a great season with Seattle in 2024 and perhaps beyond. This is the outcome I’m expecting to see until it’s no longer a realistic option. I suspect the Mariners feel the same way.
My Oh My…
Thanks for reading Mariners Consigliere! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my fragile ego.