Pirates' Gregory Polanco Finds The Spotlight Suits Him
's professional career truly began when he stepped onto the field with the Pirates in a big league spring training game against the Red Sox in March. Though he was just an emergency callup from minor league camp, he had one game to see how the other half lives.
"Latin players are used to playing complex ball," Pirates international scouting director Rene Gayo said. "It's all chain link. You could say you're not a pro baseball player until you are playing under the lights.
"Just getting a taste of that really helped him."
When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle inserted Polanco into that spring-training game, he was just a tall, lanky outfielder who had failed to reach a .700 OPS in two tries in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
As Gayo described, the GCL doesn't feel like pro baseball. Teams play in the scorching midday sun in front of few fans on back fields at a team's spring training complex. It's not much different from the experience of playing in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, or performing in workouts in front of scouts.
But playing in a big league spring training game feels like more than just another day at the ballpark. For one day, Polanco got a taste of the good life as a big leaguer. And even if he struck out in his at-bat, the scene suited him.
"It's a credit to our development people," Gayo said. "A major turning point was when Clint let him do that. That's when the light bulb went on."
Power, Speed, Arm
Sent to a park where he gets to play under the lights at low Class A West Virginia, Polanco has emerged as one of most intriguing pop-up prospects of the 2012 season. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound center fielder can run, as evidenced by 37 steals in 47 attempts. He can field. But most importantly this year, he has shown that he can hit.
West Virginia shortstop Alen Hanson has captured scouts' attention with his .319/.383/.552 batting line this season. But when they sit on the Power for a week, they often walk away wondering if over the long term, Polanco might be just as good as Hanson—if not better.
Polanco was batting .329/.387/.526 through 359 at-bats for West Virginia. The 20-year-old is fifth in the South Atlantic League in batting, is third in the South Atlantic League in stolen bases, fourth in RBIs (70) and second in total bases (189). He has some present power, but scouts see his frame and expect to see even more pop in years to come.
"He looks like a six-week-old St. Bernard," said an American League scout who has seen Polanco this season. "He's very awkward, but he's got enormous paws that tell you he's going to be a monster."
Polanco has quite the outfield arm as well. He auditioned for scouts as a lefthanded pitcher, but when the Pirates saw him take a few swings they decided he would fit best as a lefty-hitting outfielder. There are now sure they made the right choice, especially when they see him in the batter's box.
"He's got tremendous strike-zone discipline. It's almost hard to say that out loud about anyone in the Sally League," Sofield said. "But when he gets ahead in the count he knows what he's looking for and how to handle it."
His pitching background shows up when a runner tries to take an extra base. Polanco had 10 outfield assists this season, good for third in the SAL, one year after leading GCL outfielders with eight assists. An opposing manager who saw him in the GCL last year said he had one of the best outfield arms he's seen.
Polanco is still pretty skinny, but the Pirates have seen him become more comfortable with his large frame. His official weight of 170 pounds is a misnomer—he's at least 30 pounds heavier than that nowadays, but his official weight hasn't been updated since he left the Dominican Summer League.
"The body is second to none. God has blessed him with a fabulous body," West Virginia manager Rick Sofield said. "It's a big league body. In due time with the natural process of growing, when he is 25 he'll be an impressive man."
"Greg is just growing into his body and becoming more experienced," Pirates director of minor league operations Larry Broadway said. "He was a very athletic player when we signed him. He has always just had a gangly frame which is starting to add strength."
Room To Grow
Polanco may be gawky right now, but already the Pirates are seeing signs of power. He has homered to the opposite field without really squaring up the ball. And he has proven that he can turn on good inside fastballs. Polanco said that the biggest change for him this year is he's learned to go the other way more often instead of trying to pull everything. Unlike many young lefthanded hitters, facing a lefty pitcher isn't much of a problem for Polanco—he's hitting .392 against lefties this year.
Because of his long strides, it never looks like he's busting it down the line, but he consistently runs 4.0 to 4.1 seconds to first base—good enough to earn him above-average grades for speed.
"He can beat out normal ground balls. I've seen him beat out a three-hopper to shortstop," Sofield said. "It's amazing. He's blessed. He's a helluva player. And he has the makeup to go along with it. He's respectful of the process and he plays hard."
Those long strides also pay off in center field.
"Defensively it looks like he goes from gap to gap in four steps, and he gets quality reads off the bat," the scout said.
It's hard to yet project what Polanco's role will be if he makes it to the big leagues. If he fills out and gains significant weight, he looks to have the power to handle a move to a corner outfield spot. Gayo was reminded of Darryl Strawberry when the Pirates were projecting Polanco's future after he signed. But there's also a chance that he'll end up keeping his current loose-limbed, athletic build and sticking in center field.
"You should see his dad. He's close to 60, but he's built exactly like (Gregory) is right now," Gayo said. "It's the structure of his body. He has a Tommy Hearns-type build. I'd let him play there until he proves he can't do it."
For now, Polanco can handle center field with no problems. He has good baseball instincts, something that was apparent when the Pirates were scouting him. At the time, Polanco didn't have much strength in his swing, but the Pirates figured that would come. Besides, there wasn't a lot of risk in a player who cost a modest $175,000.
"He was 6-foot-3 then. He was a pitcher, but he could swing the bat well, so we stuck him in the outfield and forgot about him pitching," Gayo said. "He was athletic, and he had the instincts to play the game. He was a baseball player."
Those instincts and his feel for the game are coming out more and more, so future trips to the Pirates' big league spring training camp won't be such an infrequent occurrence for Polanco.