With a little more seasoning, Polanco can make jump
Pirates' future outfield has potential to be among best in Major Leagues
At some point in the future, we will likely see an outfield of Starling Marte in left field, Andrew McCutchen in center and Gregory Polanco in right for the Pittsburgh Pirates. When that happens, the speed and talent of the trio may be among the best in baseball.
Polanco is one of those rare prospects with a combination of power and speed. An emerging five-tool player, he can change a game with his powerful bat or his much-better-than-average ability to steal bases or take an extra base when needed. Still not a finished product, Polanco has some refinement left in his overall development. His skills are evident, but he just needs more experience.
The Pirates signed Polanco in 2009 as a free agent from the Dominican Republic. At that time, the 17-year-old showed some raw tools and a bright future. In Polanco's first season, playing in the Dominican Summer League, he hit .267 with 12 stolen bases. In 261 plate appearances, he didn't hit a home run. However, Polanco did flash some power by hitting eight doubles and six triples, which also showcased his speed.
I've been able to scout Polanco, the Bucs' No. 1 prospect, in both the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field in New York and during this past Spring Training in Florida.
During batting practice at the Futures Game, Polanco put on a show. The left-handed hitter sent several balls way over the wall in right field. His batting-practice homers reminded me of the performance of St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect Oscar Taveras in the 2012 game.
It was during Spring Training that I got to see the game-changing speed Polanco offers. With a 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, the lanky Polanco takes extremely long, loping strides with long legs that seem to go on forever. But even with his extensive skill set, he didn't seem comfortable. Polanco wasn't tentative, but he didn't seem to let his talent flow naturally.
Even though at times it looked like he was holding some of that talent in "reserve," Polanco has the ability to hit for a high batting average by getting into a good hitting rhythm and using the entire field. His swing can get long at times, but his bat control and contact rate are very solid. The ball makes that special sound when Polanco connects.
Polanco is usually selective at the plate, choosing pitches to drive and not being fooled often. While he can really do some damage against righties, he becomes vulnerable at times to breaking pitches from left-handed pitchers.
In 2012, Polanco hit .325 with 16 home runs and 85 RBIs for Class A West Virginia. He stole 40 bases in 55 attempts. He served notice of his capabilities.
Last season, the Pirates exposed Polanco to three affiliates. He played at Class A Advanced Bradenton, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. Polanco hit a combined .285 with 12 home runs and 71 RBIs while swiping 38 bases. He went to the plate 536 times in 2013, but only nine of them were at Indianapolis, where he's currently playing.
Defensively, Polanco has enough arm strength to play right field and the speed required to play center. He can close on balls quickly, but he still needs work running routes and becoming comfortable in the outfield. In short, while Polanco is an outstanding athlete, he has to trust his instincts and let his ability take over.
There are few flaws to Polanco's overall game. If he puts all the components together and continues to gain experience, he should fulfill his All-Star potential. However, Polanco may need some time to adjust to higher-quality pitching as he hopes to make the jump to the next level.
Polanco will likely require patience and understanding as he adapts to sharp sliders and breaking balls. I'm not sure any part of the game will come easily to him. Polanco will have to work very hard to realize his optimal production. But ultimately, sooner rather than later, he will make an impact in Pittsburgh's outfield.