Prospect Rewind: How Gregory Polanco Became the Pirates’ Top Prospect

Last week the 2014 Prospect Guide was released. Many of you received your books early this week, or you purchased the eBook in the last two days. In either case, you would know by now that Gregory Polanco is our top ranked prospect in the Pirates’ system heading into the 2014 season. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, you can purchase the book here. The next shipment of paperback books is expected to arrive at the end of this week, while the eBook is available through our publisher, with ordering and discount information in that link.

It has been a busy week for Polanco news on this site. He started the week being named the MVP and Rookie of the Year of the Dominican Winter Leagues. On Monday night, I talked about how he could join the Pirates during the 2014 season, and pair with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to make the best outfield in the majors. But how did Polanco get to this point?

The Pirates have drafted many tall, projectable right-handed pitchers in the last six years. With each report, the idea is that the player could add some weight to his tall and skinny frame, add some velocity due to the weight, and become a much better pitcher a few years down the road. It’s not quite as simple as add weight and add velocity, but that is a big component. It’s also the same concept with hitting prospects.

Gregory Polanco was one of several tall, projectable hitters a few years ago. In this case, the projection involves adding weight to his frame and adding power. He hadn’t done that in 2010 and 2011, leading to a combined .218/.289/.322 line in 357 at-bats in the GCL. He was unranked in the 2011 and 2012 Prospect Guides, but the reports were positive for his future.

Gregory Polanco in Spring Training 2011.

Gregory Polanco in Spring Training 2011.

2011 – Unranked

The Pirates, in particular Rene Gayo, were very high on Polanco when he signed, singling him out among the group of twelve players they signed at the same time. The fact he lasted just one year in the DSL at his young age before being brought to the states is a good sign. He has good speed, showed great base running instincts and has the ability to play center field. Due to his size they expect him to hit for some power once he grows into his body. He struggled in the GCL in 2010, but he was just 18 years old so it was a slightly aggressive promotion. Polanco will likely end up in short-season ball again next year and is one to watch, despite his early numbers.

I’ve mentioned in previous Prospect Rewinds that I didn’t get a chance to see many lower level prospects prior to the 2011 season. That wasn’t the case with Polanco. I saw him several times, mostly because it was easy to pick him out in a crowd. I didn’t necessarily know it was Polanco at first. I just knew him as that “extremely tall, extremely skinny outfielder who is surprisingly fast”. Anyone who has been to Pirate City during Spring Training and has initially been overwhelmed by the sea of minor leaguers showing only numbers on the back of their jerseys will be familiar with this kind of identification system.

It was based on Polanco’s size, speed, and pure athleticism that he became one of my sleeper prospects to follow. If you ever talked to me at Pirate City after the 2010 season, you would most likely hear about Polanco being a sleeper to watch. He didn’t break out in 2011, but did return to the GCL. The numbers weren’t much better, and he remained an unranked prospect with potential.

Gregory Polanco

Polanco at the end of the 2011 season.

2012 – Unranked

Polanco is a very promising outfield prospect. He’s got good speed, with great base running instincts. He is good enough defensively to play center field. He’s got a projectable frame, with a good chance that he can add power as he fills out. He’s still very raw, which shows in his 2011 numbers. The results weren’t great in the GCL, although he did put up good strikeout and walk ratios, along with a bit of power. Polanco is a project who should get plenty of playing time in 2012 in State College.

Something changed with Polanco between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The change might have happened in 2011, as Polanco had decent numbers in the GCL, with a .754 OPS outside of a really horrible first week. The small sample size and the poor first week lowered his overall numbers and hid the good results. In Spring Training the following year, Polanco just looked different. He was crushing every pitcher he saw. That included left-handers and Double-A pitchers. It only took me a week of batting practice in early Spring Training to label him a breakout prospect for the 2012 season.

I’ve watched him a lot in the last week, and he’s put on a show in batting practice. That’s only batting practice, but from what I’ve seen of his hitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some breakout numbers from him this year. He hit for a .237 average in the GCL last year, but had a .333 OBP, thanks to an 11.8% walk rate. He hit three homers in 169 at-bats, and stole 18 bases. That was his second year in the GCL, and he made huge strides with his walk rate, and added a bit of power. He turned 20 in September, and he’s one of my sleeper candidates this year.

And of course, Polanco did break out that year. He was one of the biggest breakout players in all of minor league baseball. He emerged the following season as a top 100 prospect in baseball, our number three prospect heading into the 2013 season, and the cover athlete of the 2013 Prospect Guide. Here is the report heading into the 2013 season.

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco, posing for the cover of the 2013 Prospect Guide in October 2012.

2013 – #3 Overall

Ever since he made the jump to the US in 2010, Polanco looked like one of the most intriguing prospects in the system. He stood out for his tall, skinny frame and his five tool potential. During the first two years in the system, Polanco looked raw, failing to carry those tools over to the game. There was a big difference in his game heading into the 2012 season.

Polanco entered Spring Training with some extra muscle on his frame. That resulted in a power surge, with the outfielder hitting everyone hard, whether it was left-handers, guys at his level, or Double-A level pitchers. The performance was enough to earn him an aggressive promotion to West Virginia.

Alen Hanson over-shadowed Polanco for the first few months of the season, mostly because of Hanson’s unreal numbers in April. As scouts watched Hanson, they quickly started to notice his teammate. Polanco was consistent, never dropping below an .800 OPS in any month. He really sealed his fate as a top prospect with a monster July, hitting for a .394 average and a 1.051 OPS. By the end of the year there was a debate over which breakout hitter was better, with the edge going to Polanco.

A big reason Polanco gets the edge over Hanson is due to his defense. Both are great hitters. Polanco has a bit of an unusual swing, but he’s got a lot of power from the left side, and above average plate patience, which is rare from a power hitter and rare from a Latin American hitter. He still has some projectability in his frame, which means we could see more power in the future.

There are questions whether Hanson can stick at a premium defensive position, but those questions don’t exist for Polanco. He has a ton of speed due to his long legs. He glides across the outfield, covering a lot of ground. Pairing the range with a plus arm, Polanco has the skills to stick in center field. As a plus defensive, power hitting center fielder with plus speed on the bases, Polanco is one of the most interesting players to watch. That’s not only among prospects, but among every player in the system. He should move to Bradenton in 2013, and could make the jump to Altoona by the end of the year.

Gregory Polanco in 2013 in Bradenton.

Gregory Polanco in 2013 in Bradenton.

The break between seasons makes it seem like Polanco just flipped a switch and went from a raw, projectable outfielder to a top prospect. The reality is that Polanco showed some improvements in 2011, then really took off in 2012. He continued his success in 2013. He didn’t show many flaws in Bradenton, hitting for average, power, and showing good plate patience. He had a ton of speed and range in the outfield, and one of the few flaws he showed was poor route running in the outfield on straightaway hits.

Polanco moved to Altoona, where he had good numbers, which were masked by a poor stretch in July. The results were similar to his 2011 season in the GCL. The overall playing time was a small sample size, and a few bad weeks lowered his overall numbers. The Pirates liked what they saw in Polanco, enough to promote him to Indianapolis at the end of the season for the Triple-A playoffs. He then followed that up with his success in the Dominican, which came mostly against Triple-A quality pitching.

When we did our mid-season prospect rankings, Polanco had just made the jump to Altoona. Gerrit Cole had graduated, which left the argument for number one between Polanco and Jameson Taillon. I had Polanco first overall, but I was alone in that ranking, with other voters wanting to see him in the upper levels. I don’t know if it was the results in Double-A or the results in the Dominican that changed things, but by the time the 2014 prospect rankings came around, Polanco was the unanimous choice as the top prospect in the system.

The overall transformation is a huge success for the Pirates. They signed Polanco for $150,000 in April 2009. He went from being a projectable outfielder with a lot of raw tools to their top prospect, one of the top prospects in baseball, and a very polished and safe prospect in terms of tools and future major league results. There’s only a bit that Polanco needs to work on in Triple-A in 2014. He is projected to arrive mid-season 2014, and could provide the hitting equivalent of the boost that Gerrit Cole gave the Pirates in 2013.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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