Still, the former Tigers second baseman would've had no problem staying in Detroit if given the chance. Had the club offered him arbitration, it very well might have.
For all the second-guessing over whether the Tigers should've offered arbitration to Polanco last winter in order to recoup two compensation Draft picks, the possibility that Polanco would've taken arbitration seemed more like a threat than a guarantee. Polanco provided some clarity on the matter Thursday morning as he prepared to face his former squad.
"You know, if they would've offered me arbitration, I probably would've accepted it," Polanco said. "Probably. I didn't know what was out there. Most teams were waiting on that. Most teams wait on that, because the type of free agent I was, they have to give up a Draft pick. So that kind of worked out well for me."
That suggests contract talks with the Phillies didn't necessarily reach a definitive stage until the Tigers decided against arbitration.
Asked if he knew beforehand that the Phils were stepping up, Polanco said, "I had an idea, but nobody really takes a really aggressive step until the decision of arbitration is done."
Philadelphia signed Polanco a couple days later to a three-year, $18 million contract. Had Polanco accepted arbitration, Detroit president/general manager Dave Dombrowski estimated they would've had to settle with him for around a $9 million salary, which he suggested might have prevented some of their later moves.
"He wanted a multi-year deal, from us or from somebody else," Dombrowski told reporters last month. "I do not know if he'd have gotten a multi-year deal if we had offered him arbitration. I think he would have now that I know what the Phillies gave him, but I did not know that at the time.
"In hindsight, would I offer Polanco [arbitration]? Sure, but I did not know at that time, and I was not prepared to pay him what one year of arbitration would be."
The Tigers were ready to slot prospect Scott Sizemore at second base, where Sizemore says he learned a bit from watching Polanco handle the position in Spring Training the previous couple of years. The two exchanged greetings in the indoor batting cages at Bright House Networks Field before the game.
"The thing that Polly did, from my understanding, he made everything real simple," Sizemore said. "He didn't try to make anything flashy or too complicated. Catch, throw, make the routine play every time. That's my goal."
Polanco, meanwhile, is back at his old club with a new position. Once he realized that a return to Detroit was unlikely, this was where he wanted to be. Realistically, though he might've accepted arbitration, he was glad they didn't offer it. Any feelings about Detroit didn't change the fact that he had a chance at a long-term deal in Philadelphia.
"If they would've wanted, they would've signed me," Polanco said. "They actually did a favor to me. They were very nice. They could've said, 'We don't want him, but we're going to get something for him, like a Draft pick.' But they didn't think like that. I don't know why they didn't. I don't know what was going through their mind, but they did it for me and I appreciate it."
The Tigers didn't do it as a favor, but many of them were glad things worked out for Polanco. And they were glad to see him Thursday.
Manager Jim Leyland remembers hitting Polanco ground balls every day during batting practice.
"He's one of the all-time treats for a manager, because you never worried about him," Leyland said. "You knew he was going to be the same every single day. You knew he was going to be ready every day. He's a real pleasure. I'm really missing him, and that certainly has nothing to do with Scott Sizemore. I'm saying I miss Polanco a lot, him being around.
"I really like him. I don't know if we're supposed to be friends or not with the players, but he's a friend. I really think the world of him."
Justin Verlander found it strange facing Polanco when he stepped to the plate in the first inning Thursday.
"I wanted to go in on him," Verlander said. "It's one of those things where he's a friend of mine, so you're a little cautious of really riding one in there, because you don't want to hit him and hurt him. But if it was in-season, that's out the window. I went in, but I was a little cautious. It was good seeing him in there."
Polanco thinks plenty of the Tigers, too. He still keeps in touch with former teammates such as Ramon Santiago and Miguel Cabrera. He said he's proud of Cabrera for how he has handled his personal matters since last season ended.
He's glad things worked out on both sides. He admits in hindsight that the contract matter and the lack of talks on an extension weighed on him early last season, until he realized it was out of his control.
"At the end, you know what? You learn from that," Polanco said. "You learn you cannot control the situation and just go with it. Now that I've learned, I can tell other guys."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.