Gregory Polanco has learned plenty over the past year.
Between the regular season and winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Polanco has played in 178 games, racking up nearly 650 at-bats and more than a few lessons about how best to navigate his path to the major leagues.
Even with all the coaches he encountered at each of the three levels he reached, he says that some of the most valuable advice he received came from two former major leaguers who never played an inning with the Pirates.
That duo advised Polanco on some of the finer points of how to conduct himself now, and when he inevitably finds himself in the outfield at PNC Field at some point next year.
“Those guys stressed how to behave like a professional player, how to even dress up to get to the ballpark, how to get to the ballpark on time, how to go about my business," Polanco said through an interpreter. “And then on the field, how to make a plan, how to approach every at-bat like it counts, how to work the counts, how to always give 100 percent and if I'm not feeling 100 percent sometimes not trying to do too much and take a day off. It's not going to (hurt) me, especially if I'm sick or not feeling 100 percent. All those things together have made a big difference."
On the field, Polanco was dominant. Through 127 games between high Class A Bradenton, Double-A Altoona and a brief taste of Triple-A Indianapolis, Polanco ripped his way to a .285/.356/.434 line with 30 doubles, 12 home runs, 71 RBIs and 38 stolen bases in 49 chances.
After a couple of days off to recharge his batteries, the fresh 22-year-old kept hitting once he got to the Dominican Republic. There, Polanco hit .331/.428/.494 with 10 doubles, five home runs and seven stolen bases. That was enough to earn him the league's rookie of the year and MVP honors.
While each level presented unique challenges, Polanco said that the varied and veteran competition he faced in the winter gave him a chance to test his game against much tougher opponents than he faced all year in the United States.
“I've learned way more in the Dominican this winter than I learned throughout all the years in the minors," he said. “The level of knowledge that all the veteran players have passed to me has been very valuable.
“What made a difference in my performance down here has been being able to play around so many veterans," he continued. “It's not that I consider myself better or more advanced than the veterans, but by having the chance to play with so many veterans, so many big leaguers, so many people with way more years in professional baseball than me, I've been able (absorb) a lot of knowledge, especially when it comes to hitting."
While he was putting together his special season, his parent club was working magic of its own. With a mix of homegrown players such as Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, resurgent veterans Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano and young building blocks Starling Marte (also a teammate of Polanco's with Escogido) and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates invigorated their city with their first playoff run since Sid Bream and the Braves broke their hearts in 1992.
Polanco watched it all, and in doing so gained an understanding of team chemistry and the importance of having a strong leader guiding the ship.
“I followed them all the way through the playoffs," Polanco said. “I'm very happy for the team and very proud to be a Pirate and be a part of the organization. One thing that I learned is that I have lot of respect for Clint Hurdle. I know how he carries a team. And one thing I learned from watching them is the chemistry and the unity that they have as a team in the clubhouse and on the field makes a difference.
“There's a lot of teams out there that have a lot of great players, but there's no chemistry. There's no unity. Those teams aren't necessarily the ones that go all the way. That's one thing that I learned from watching the Pirates this year and the way the played. They're like a family and a team, and that helped them get where they got. It all starts with the Clint Hurdle. He's the guy who puts the pieces together in the clubhouse and on the field."
And although he was an ardent fan, even a casual observer could see the problem Polanco faced as a center fielder knocking on the door of Pittsburgh. McCutchen is an all-star in his prime with a very team-friendly contract through 2018. With Marte in left field, it's clear—even to Polanco—that his future is in right field, a position he played extensively in his early days in the system.
“I'm aware that I'm probably going to move to right field," Polanco said. “I've been working on it, and it hasn't been that hard for me because I played mostly right field when I was in the Dominican Summer League and when I played in the Gulf Coast League. I've basically only played center field in 2012 and 2013, but before that I was mainly a right fielder."
And while it's unlikely Polanco finds his way back to the Dominican Republic for the rest of Escogido's playoffs and possibly the Caribbean Series, his season isn't quite done. He also had a two-day mini-camp at the Pirates' spring home in Bradenton before departing later in the week for Major League Baseball's Rookie Development Program, in Washington, D.C.
After that, he'll head home for another month-long respite before spring training. Then it's likely back to Triple-A, where he'll wait for the call of his life.
“I'm ready for that phone call," he said. “It's out of my hands, but my job is to show up in Bradenton next month 100 percent ready and healthy and then put everything in God's hands. I've been working for that phone call, for that moment, for a very long time, and whenever it is, if it's in April or it's in June, I'll be ready."
Rudy, Rudy, Rudy
For Rudy Owens, 2013 was a year to forget. After a deadline deal in 2012 sent Owens, along with fellow lefty Colton Cain and outfielder Robbie Grossman, from Pittsburgh to Houston, Owens made just four starts in April before a stress fracture in his foot shut him down for the remainder of the year.
To make up for lost time, the Astros sent Owens to the Dominican League, where he made 10 starts for the Gigantes del Cibao. Overall, he went 3-2, 2.68 with 49 strikeouts and 16 walks in 53 2/3 innings. He allowed just 37 hits and two home runs in that span.
Mark Brewer, the pitching coach for the Gigantes and a former pitching coach in the Mets, Royals and Pirates organizations, got to spend a lot of time with Owens and was pleased with the work ethic he showed.
“Rudy was basically getting innings he had missed out on because of the foot injury," Brewer said. “He worked very hard and took his time here seriously. I was pleased to have him as a part of this staff, and he was a big reason why we made the playoffs. He had a very good routine that he followed. I was mostly impressed with his ability to pitch in to righthanded hitters and his demeanor in crucial situations. I am looking forward to seeing him pitch in the major leagues this year."
The 26-year-old Owens, a Pirates' 28th-round pick in 2006, is likely to begin the year back with Triple-A Oklahoma City and will serve as an emergency option for the big club if the need arises.
Owens is a control artist with an upper-80s fastball that features plenty of run, an above-average changeup and a show-me slider . He ranked among the Pirates' top 30 prospects each season from 2009-2011, peaking at No. 7 in 2010.
Movers And Shakers
Plenty of free-agent signings in the early portion of the offseason has also meant bad news for the players who had to be purged from 40-man rosters to make room for the newcomers. In most cases, these moves are a sign of a one-time prominent prospect who has seen his career hit a downturn, but if a player is claimed, it's generally an indication that some other team sees some value in trying to resurrect the prospect's career.
The Cubs claimed righthander Brett Marshall, who was designated for assignment by the Yankees when the team inked Carlos Beltran to a three-year deal. Marshall, 23, was 7-10, 5.13 with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and made two appearances in the major leagues.
The Rangers picked up outfielder Alex Castellanos, whom the Red Sox designated for assignment after re-signing Mike Napoli. Castellanos, who was traded to Boston in late October for outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, hit .257/.347/.468 with Triple-A Albuquerque in 2013 and appeared in 18 games with the Dodgers.
The Rangers also got rid of outfielder Rafael Ortega—whom they claimed from the Rockies earlier in the offseason—to make room for righthander Miles Mikolas, who was acquired in a trade with the Pirates for first baseman Chris McGuinness, who had also been designated for assignment, leading to his trade. Ortega, who reached the major leagues with Colorado in 2012, hit .228/.315/.297 with Double-A Tulsa in 2013.
The Marlins designated catcher Kyle Skipworth, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2008 draft, to make room for third baseman Casey McGehee. Skipworth, who made it into four games with Miami in 2013, is a career .215/.277/.380 hitter in the minors. He went unclaimed and was outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans.
The Padres designated hard-throwing righthander Adys Portillo, whom they signed out of Venezuela in 2008 for $2 million, to make room for former Rays reliever Joaquin Benoit. Portillo, 22, was 0-1, 4.82 in three starts for low Class A Fort Wayne in 2013.
Portillo had morphed into a hard-throwing reliever capable of flirting with the high-90s, but his feel for pitching and offspeed stuff hasn't come around as the Padres had hoped, and injuries have plagued him throughout his career.
The White Sox designated lefthander Santos Rodriguez to make room for reliever Scott Downs. Rodriguez, the No. 21 White Sox prospect last year, sports a 91-95 mph fastball and finished the year 2-0, 4.91 between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte.