Pirates’ Gregory Polanco ready to join his contending big-league teammates, once he makes sure his shoulder is right

INDIANAPOLIS -- The man who led the Pittsburgh Pirates in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ last season has been admiring the work of his big-league teammates from afar to start the 2019 season. 

Heading into Friday, Gregory Polanco had yet to appear in the majors this season, but his Pirates teammates entered with -- believe it or not -- the best record in the National League by percentage points at 11-6 (.647). It's been a sneaky-quick run to the top, mostly spurred by the starting rotation

He's itching to join them and get in on the fun, too. 

"I keep in touch with everybody, everyday," Polanco told CBS Sports. "I watch the games when I can. It's like, I see they're doing good right now, but we gotta keep working." 

"Oh for sure," he said, when asked if seeing his teammates playing so well provided extra motivation. "Everybody likes to win and I wanna be part of that winning right now and be part of that team. That's where I belong and I want to be there as soon as possible, but first I gotta take care of my shoulder."

Ah yes, the shoulder.  

The last time Polanco played in a major-league game, his 2018 season was ended on this slide into second base: 

It was a great hustle and he wanted to get into second base safely so badly that he kind of jumped. His cleat caught and he ended up paying for it dearly. He came away with a significant bone bruise in his left knee and an acute left shoulder dislocation, the latter requiring season-ending surgery. The prognosis at the time: Seven-to-nine months before a return to the diamond. 

This was a tough blow for the Pirates before they even hit the offseason. Polanco had the best season of his career in 2018 and looked like he could possibly take the next step toward stardom in 2019. He hit .254/.340/.499 (128 OPS+) with 32 doubles, six triples, 23 homers, 81 RBI, 75 runs and 12 steals in 130 games before his injury. Heading to his age-27 season, there's plenty of time to grow and improve. 

Instead, he's coming back from a devastating injury. 

Roughly seven months after said injury, Polanco is in Victory Field, home of the Indians (the Pirates' Triple-A affiliate, which surely seems confusing for those who weren't familiar) and is playing in his eighth rehab game, the fourth of which with Indy.

It's been a long road since the middle of last September, but Polanco says he's close to making it back to The Show. 

"I'm feeling good, he said. "Everyday I feel better and my shoulder feels stronger."

"I'm very close."

Unfortunately for Polanco, weather cost him a rehab game this week after some scheduled days off, though he's been working even harder inside as a result. 

"It's hard when you come back from an injury like that, but I'm feeling better," he said. "I've been working a lot in the cage the last three days that I haven't played." 

Friday, Polanco had a rough go early. He misplayed a liner into a triple in right field in the first inning and his throws have the look of being weak, as if he's timid to really let go with the surgically-repaired arm. He struck out in his first at-bat, too. He would follow with a fielder's choice before ripping a line drive to left field in a pretty piece of hitting. He stayed back and went with an outer half pitch, punching it to left. He struck out in his final at-bat, but it was after a battle in which he fouled a handful of pitches off. 

Generally speaking, in rehab assignments, it's not so much about the results as how a player feels and getting his game timing down. The timing aspect especially rang true for me on Friday, as Polanco fouled off several pitches in each at-bat. He was visibly frustrated after a few foul balls, too. Regardless, the results have been mostly good for him since he got to Triple-A. He's now 5 for 16 (.313) with two walks (.389 OBP), though he doesn't yet have an extra-base hit. 

As far as the power, I wondered if maybe that was lagging due to the shoulder injury. Polanco said it was quite the contrary and his power was fine in the cage. It's actually a different matter with the shoulder. 

"It's my range of motion," Polanco corrected me. "I just have to get it loose, really loose. My range of motion is getting better." 

As noted above, power shouldn't be a concern anyway because the rehab assignment is more about getting reps and timing. He's 6-foot-5, 235 pounds of a hulking lefty. The power will be there. I imagine his throws will improve in time, too, as he works to get his shoulder back where it needs to be. 

For now, Polanco is feverishly working to rejoin his teammates ASAP. And why wouldn't he? They've been one of MLB's pleasant surprises to this point, even without one of their best players. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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