I'm writing this Tuesday afternoon, hoping nothing earth-shattering happened in the night's game I should really be talking about. Just a nice, simple, 14-2 win by our boys in red is all I really want. Also a Brew Crew loss, and an outbreak of amoebic dysentery in their clubhouse. And a Reds loss, too, just because. And a pizza. I've had a taste for pizza lately. Actually, make that two pizzas. So I'll have leftovers for a couple days, you know? Cold pizza is super awesome. And a new television for my living room. The one I have now is getting on in years.
So a Cardinal win, a Brewers loss combined with an epidemic of explosive diarrhea, a Reds loss, two pizzas, and a new television is all I really want. Just the simple things in life. Oh, and Randy Savage to come back to life and wish me a happy birthday. (My birthday was like a month ago, but I figure it's okay that he's a little late, since he's probably busy hitting Jesus with a flying elbow or something right now.)
With the Cardinals playing the Pirates at the moment, there's a bit of news in Buccoland I thought was especially interesting. The Pirates last night demoted Gregory Polanco, former uber prospect turned phenom turned Struggling Rookie, to Triple A to try and work himself through his recent struggles.
Polanco set the world on fire when he was called up back in mid-June, hitting .367 in his first ten games and showing off the astoundingly wide base of tools he had become known for in his rise through the minor leagues. In fact, the way Polanco came out of the gate, it looked as if the angst the Pittsburgh fan base had been feeling over the Pirates keeping him in the minors (largely thought to be because of service time issues), was entirely justified. More than justified, in fact; it looked as if the hue and cry for Polanco's promotion might have been, if anything, too little outrage, considering the Pirates' early-season stumbles and the immediate jolt sent the rookie right fielder sent through their lineup.
Remember, when the 2014 season began, there was a feeling in Pittsburgh the Pirate front office really could have done more in the offseason, and the consensus among media and analyst types, that the Pirates were likely to take a step backward this season toward mediocrity after the great breakout of 2013, definitely didn't help to calm the natives. Seeing Polanco held in the minors even as he trounced Triple A competition over salary issues only made matters worse.
But now, just a few scant months later, things have gone somewhat sour for the Pirates and their talented rookie. Since that hot start, Polanco has fizzled. His OPS in July was .595, and he struck out better than thrice for each walk, an ominous sign for a player whose command of the strike zone has always been one of his most touted qualities. He's been marginally better in August, with a .638 OPS overall and a less lopsided K:BB ratio, but the past eleven games have seen him mired in an horrific slump, hitting just .081 and going 1 for his last 30. The Pirates sent him down both to try and get him right and to simply make room for a player who might be more productive as they try to hang in the NL Central race.
Now, the point of this is not, in fact, to make light of a very young, very talented player's struggles, nor to wallow in the disappointment of a division foe's fans. Rather, the story of Polanco's 2014 season should really be seen as a corollary to the up-and-down (mostly down, unfortunately), season of the Cardinals' own great white hope, Oscar Taveras.
Much like Polanco, Oscar came into the season riding a wave of hype as one of the most exciting prospects in all of baseball, and the Next Big Thing for a Cardinals team which has seen almost unprecedented success over the past few years in growing young talent from within. Also like Polanco, Taveras was kept in the minors longer than many in the fan base might have liked to see, though there was much less outcry over the Cards possibly playing salary shenanigans with the youngster; rather, the Redbirds looked early like a loaded club trying to find consistency, then a semi-loaded club trying to balance opportunities and consistency, and then finally a club with some truly unforeseen troubles with key players, just trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how soon to pull the plug on what wasn't working.
When the Pirates finally sent Polanco down, his season wRC+ had dropped all the way to 88, with a .241/.308/.349 line that looked nothing like what was expected of him following his first two weeks in the big leagues. Sadly, that line right now would look pretty okay for Oscar, whose own .233/.273/.307 line through the first 187 plate appearances of his major league career looks almost like an optical illusion considering what most believe he can be. Of course, Oscar's line, while miserable, represents somewhat the opposite experience of Polanco, even if the overall results have been even worse.
Taveras came up the last day of May, brought in to replace the injures Matt Adams in the lineup as Allen Craig, the club's starting right fielder for most of the season, slid over to first base. He hit a home run his first day in the big leagues, a towering shot to right made fully Natural-level dramatic when you watch the high-speed video, complete with silvery streaks of rain as if Taveras were blasting open the heavens himself with the force of his swing. It was a remarkable moment; a moment of unbridled, unabashed joy and optimism at the arrival of a long-awaited herald. Oh, yeah, and since then he's been pretty much shit on a shingle, but that's not nearly so fun to talk about. Do you remember how cool it was when he--
Okay, yes. So Oscar the Great and Powerful has really been anything but since that first day. Or, at least he was really bad for quite a while, both in the remainder of his initial audition with the big club (.422 OPS), and when he was called back up a few weeks later (.548 OPS in the month of July). His ISO for the season is a wretched .074, which is sub-Jon Jay (.090 ISO), the poster boy for the unbearable emptiness of average.
On the other hand, things have definitely been looking up for Oscar of late, even if still much more slowly than we would like. His OPS for the month of August is only .633, but since the 16th of August, the day he returned to starting from his two-game timeout to think about what he had done, he's hit .324, with a much more robust .743 OPS. Unfortunately, there's still been very little sign of the power he's shown all through his career up until now, but, hey, baby steps, right? He seems to be gaining confidence, swinging the bat better, and becoming a bit more comfortable at the big league level, even with all the clubhouse angst over the trade of beloved Memphis Mafia stalwart Allen Craig to make room for the young gun with the Clockwork Orange (as in ultraviolent), swing. Polanco's hot streak came early, while Oscar's best run of play has been lately.
Is that any sort of referendum on their respective abilities? Of course not. I don't believe Polanco's 88 wRC+ or Taveras's 63 are any more indicative of their true talent levels than Travis Snider's .900+ OPS since the first week of August is indicative he's suddenly turned into a perennial all-star calibre hitter. (That's the other piece of the story that's different for Taveras and Polanco; Polanco's position is currently being manned by a player hitting the cover off the ball, which Oscar never actually had to contend with this year, even if at times it seemed the manager believed he did.)
No, the lesson in all of this is a very simple one, and one we often forget: baseball is hard. Like, really hard. And when you have 21 and 22 year old kids trying to perform on the biggest stage, it's not always the easiest ride. Sure, there are ways you can statistically slice it to make the case we should all still believe in a guy whose major league career entire consists of less than 200 plate appearances, but you know what? You really shouldn't have to. All you should have to do is point to Gregory Polanco in Pittsburgh and his miserable last two months, or to Mike Trout in Anaheim and his .182 batting average and 17:4 strikeout to walk ratio in September of his rookie season, or to any of the other hundreds of brilliant ballplayers who failed to set the world on fire in their first taste of the majors. Adjusting to the major leagues is all about, well, adjustments, and adjustments generally take time.
Oscar Taveras is barely old enough to buy himself a beer. I have concerns about him, sure. But time is on his side, and he looks like he's starting to figure things out. Maybe he and Gregory Polanco both flame out. Maybe they both become stars and we watch them battle it out for division crowns for the next decade. If I were a betting man, I'd probably put money on the latter. But still, there are no guarantees.
Actually, there is at least one guarantee I can make. I guarantee that no one, right now, has enough information to say what either of these players is really going to be. And anyone who thinks they do is either a liar or a fool.