Top prospect Polanco making large first impression
Towering outfielder has dazzled with his speed, hitting exploits in big league camp
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tales of his exploits, some of them quite tall, have been setting his stage for a year, awing and fascinating peers and fans alike; tales of the swing, of the range, of the speed and the stride.
"He's got the longest legs I've ever seen," reported pitcher Jameson Taillon, a Minor League teammate in 2013. "Takes him four steps to get to first base."
Now Gregory Polanco is stepping out of the haze of word of mouth into the bright sunshine over Pirate City, letting people see that he's very much for real. A 6-foot-6 left-handed hitter who covers the plate with his level swing and covers right field with his long gait.
Not everything he does here is in the open. The other day, he was with a group of players running 90-foot sprints inside the indoor batting cages. Polanco was timed at 3.77 seconds. Not out of a batting cage after dropping a bat, out of a sprinter's stance but, still, average time to first base for a left-handed batter is considered in the 4.2-second range.
So one of the Bucs' biggest holes and their biggest hope are converging this Spring Training. Last season, the Pirates got a .299 on-base percentage from their right fielders, and they didn't make a move in the offseason to acquire someone who might do more because a virtual banner hangs over the position: "Reserved for Polanco."
That makes Polanco unavoidably one of the biggest attractions in his very first big league Spring Training camp. As if one could avoid someone who towers above everyone else when position players gather to stretch and get loose in the morning, and when they splinter off into groups for the day's workout.
The consensus rates Polanco as the top prospect in an organization rich with them. But the projections extend beyond him, the individual: The thought of an outfield of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco makes scouts and even opposing team executives weak at the knees. Three natural center fielders covering grass like morning dew.
A National League general manager recently told MLB Network's Peter Gammons that the threesome "will be the best outfield in the league. Their all-around games are really good."
Their own manager, Clint Hurdle, mused out loud, "I don't think I've ever seen three burners in one outfield."
Several baseball insiders have likened the 22-year-old Dominican Polanco to Darryl Strawberry, and it's an easy comparison because of the height and the fact both hit left-handed. But they all seem to omit a key adjective in the description: "A beefy Darryl Strawberry." The original was always lean, spindly. In the last year, Polanco has filled out dramatically, adding a lot of upper-body strength.
"I had an opportunity to play with him on a rehab assignment last year," said fellow outfielder Travis Snider, who spent two weeks with Double-A Altoona in late August trying to play through the pain in his left big toe, "and seeing how he developed physically over the offseason is pretty sweet. For a guy his frame and his size, he's filled out."
So the next few weeks will offer a peek into the future. Not the immediate future: Polanco is destined to open the season in Triple-A Indianapolis for a variety of reasons, among them his need to grow from being a purely instinctive to a reflective hitter.
"The biggest maturation he will have to go through is learning how pitchers attack him and how to lay off that pitch inside," said Jeff Branson, the Pittsburgh batting coach who, along with everyone else, is getting his first extended look at Polanco. "He has long arms, and the first thing pitchers will do is try to pound him in, to shorten his arms. He has to have the patience to get to his game plan, rather than attack their game plan."
The Pirates are not shying away from fostering the daydream. When Hurdle drew up groups for the daily batting practice rotation, he lumped Marte, McCutchen and Polanco together. They follow each other into the cage, a recurring preview of when they could follow each other in the lineup.
"And I'll feel very comfortable getting [Polanco] in play with the rest of the guys," said Hurdle, looking forward to Grapefruit League play, which begins on Wednesday.
After his first day of hitting with Marte and McCutchen, Polanco said, "Definitely, it was a lot of fun. But it was just regular batting practice after a while."
There was nothing regular about it, actually. Photographers scrambled to record the occasion. Fans buzzed. Fellow players and coaches marveled.
"The ball jumps off his bat," McCutchen noted after the first day of hitting with Polanco. "He already has that swing to the opposite field, but he can pull if the pitch is in on him. Me, when I started, I pulled everything and had to learn to hit the other way. And he hits everything hard, with a lot of power."
Watching Polanco rip everything on Day 2, McCutchen just deadpanned, "He's ready."
The thing is, Polanco does feel ready. Partly because of his steady progress through the Bucs' Minor League system since signing with them as a 17 year old in 2009. For instance, do you realize he hit .235, with but a total of six homers, in his first three seasons as a pro? Mostly, however, due to the competition he faced and aced this winter, breaking through as both the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year of the Dominican Winter League. He led Escogido to a regular-season best record of 31-19, hitting .331 but impressing most with the .428 on-base percentage.
"I learned way more in the Dominican this winter than throughout all the years in the Minors," Polanco told Baseball America in January. "Being able to play around so many veterans, so many big leaguers, made a difference in my performance. I've been able to absorb a lot of knowledge about hitting.
"I'm ready for that phone call. I've been working for that phone call. Whenever it comes -- in April or in June -- I'll be ready."
This is familiar territory for the Pirates. Two springs ago, Marte was Polanco, and he turned expectations into execution. Marte was hitting a hard .520 in a dozen exhibitions when the team sent him to Minor League camp to make it easier to adhere to GM Neal Huntington's policy of not rushing players over Triple-A.
"The worst thing we can do is rush a player because we have a need," said Huntington, who has not changed his mind. "We need to remain disciplined and bring players to the big leagues when not only they're ready, but when they're ready to help a team win in a playoff-type environment. That's a very different level of readiness criteria. If it's Taillon or Polanco or the next wave of guys ... better to be a month too late than a day too early."
Patience, trust in his approach, is not one of the things Polanco had to learn from his Dominican Winter League elders. He always had that, evidenced by the impressive walks-to-strikeouts (162-to-263) ratio for a young player during his Minor League ascension.
"His maturity is really impressive. As young as he is, to stay as committed to a game plan as he does ... I've never seen anybody that young stay that committed," Jeff Livesey, the Pirates' Minor League hitting coordinator the past three years and now their assistant batting coach, told Branson.
Polanco will need the same patience he has in the batter's box next to the phone. But it will ring, soon.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.