The future for top Pirates hitting prospect Gregory Polanco has grown brighter and brighter for the last three years. The center fielder comes to the 2013 Futures Game as one of baseball’s most exciting minor-league outfielders.
Showing up in New York City for All-Star Week represents a coming-out party for Polanco. He was neither a highly-touted draft choice nor a Dominican bonus baby, receiving just $75,000 from the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign in March 2009.
“I’m very excited,” Polanco said after being named to the Futures Game with second baseman Dilson Herrera. “I’ve got to keep working and doing what I’m doing right now. Move forward.”
Getting to NYC
Polanco’s last two seasons have been a revelation. Two years after arriving in America a tall, skinny 18-year-old, Polanco is now both a bona fide five-tool prospect and a hitter almost assured of making some measure of Major League impact. Over the Low-A, High-A and Double-A levels since the start of 2012, the center fielder has produced a stellar .317 average, an .873 OPS, 24 home runs and 68 stolen bases.
“When he first came over, you knew ‘Wow,'” said Ryan Long, Polanco’s current hitting coach at Double-A Altoona. “You’ve got this guy who has a great body, long arms and speed. For me, it’s been cool to see him three years later… where all that’s come together a little bit and starting to polish up.”
Now Polanco, 22, is considered one of the game’s best up-and-coming position players. Baseball Prospectus named him baseball’s No. 12 prospect with “the talent to move up the list.” Baseball America placed him No. 13 overall, saying “when Polanco joins Pirates outfield, club will field three legitimate center fielders.”
Moving Up the Ranks
After a breakthrough 2012 season playing only for Low-A West Virginia (.325/.388/.522, 16 HR, 40 SB), Polanco needed only 57 games at High-A Bradenton before Pirates general manager Neal Huntington promoted him to the upper minors.
“We felt like he was ready for the next challenge,” Huntington said. “The pitchers’ commands gonna be a little better. The consistency of their stuff is gonna be a little bit better. It’s gonna challenge him a little bit more as a hitter. Much like any young hitter, as long as he commands the strike zone, he is gonna have a lot of success.”
Polanco has certainly commanded the strike zone well, almost surprisingly well given his age and the reputation among Dominican players to be impatient in the batters’ box. The disciplined Polanco owns a decent 9% walk rate over the last two seasons and a .378 on-base percentage. His patience in a microcosm: drawing a four-pitch walk off Major League reliever Brett Myers during the pitcher’s rehab assignment in Double-A Akron, all pitches that just barely missed the outside edge of the strike zone.
“I was looking for one pitch and he didn’t throw it to me,” Polanco said.
For a hitting prospect that has broken through so dramatically, one with such great talent and makeup plus an already-high level of play, what else is there for Polanco to learn before his likely Major League callup next summer?
“Right now I’m focused on getting ready early and hit the ball left-center field,” Polanco said. “Stay sharp. Be consistent.”
“Hitting is always a constant game of adjustments,” Long said. “Learning what pitchers are doing to you in certain situations, those kinds of things. Harnessing your true strengths.”
Altoona manager Carlos Garcia, himself a former Caribbean prospect before an All-Star stint with the Pirates?
“You have to be consistent all around,” Garcia said. “If he has to work in one thing, it’s become a professional. A professional ball player does the right thing all the time, on and off the field.”
Who Was That Kid?
If the Futures Game represents Polanco’s debut on the national scene, hitting in a Major League ballpark and being scene across the country on ESPN2, he is certainly already well-known for his exploits in Major League spring training. He appeared in only five games with the Pirates’ squad this spring, but manager Clint Hurdle said most who saw him wanted to know, “Who was that kid?”
“Now as he continues to make his minor league rounds and I call friends within our industry, there’s a lot of people who are aware of who Gregory Polanco is,” Hurdle said.
Easy: one of the five best outfield prospects in all of baseball.