Wondering why the Pirates didn't fight harder to keep Marlon Byrd?
Check the stats out of the Dominican Winter League, in particular those of the Escogido Leones. The No. 3 hitter for that 16-10 team is 22-year-old center fielder Gregory Polanco, who most regard as Pittsburgh's top prospect.
Polanco had a pair of singles on Tuesday night, including one that drove in a key run in the 3-2 victory over Aguilas. He's hitting .326 with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 24 games. That's impressive production, especially for a gifted fielder who stole 38 bases at three levels last season, when he showed an advanced level of plate discipline.
Polanco has played in only two games at Triple-A, so Pirates general manager Neal Huntington could easily assign him to Triple-A Indianapolis to start 2014. It's probably the smart thing to do, as after hitting .312 at high Class A Bradenton, Polanco slid to .262 after a midseason promotion. But this guy seems like a perfect fit for the Bucs' highly athletic outfield.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP Award winner, earned a Gold Glove Award two seasons ago. He and 25-year-old left fielder Starling Marte made it difficult to drop hits into the left side of the outfield last season. They combined to save 27 defensive runs for Pittsburgh's pitching staff, with Marte's plus-20 the best rating among big leaguers at his position.
Marte had primarily been a center fielder in the Minors, but he moved to left field to play alongside McCutchen. Polanco, who has the arm to play right field, has also played mostly center, but he seems destined for the other flank. That's where Byrd filled in so well after being acquired in August, but he's already moved on, signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies.
Polanco -- signed to a $150,000 bonus based strictly on a projection that he could make the switch from pitching to the outfield -- epitomizes the aggressive approach that has made Pittsburgh the top-ranked Minor League system, according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. He's listed at 6-foot-4, but he has unusually long legs on top of an abbreviated trunk, and has remained lean (170 pounds) as he's learned to hit while climbing through the Minors.
The left-handed-hitting Polanco was the low Class A South Atlantic League MVP in 2012, hitting .325 with 16 homers, 40 stolen bases, and only 20 more strikeouts than walks (64/44). But he was overmatched in his first try against the advanced pitchers who work in the Dominican Winter League, hitting only .171 in a 13-game stint for Escogido last year.
That's hardly been the case this time around. Polanco is owning his game.
With McCutchen signed through 2017 with an option for '18, next season could be the first of five for the Pirates with the outfield configuration, from left to right, of Marte-McCutchen-Polanco.
Jose Tabata (.282/.342/.429 in 308 at-bats last season), signed to a team-friendly deal through 2016 with an option for '17, adds depth, at least until more prospects -- like Josh Bell and '13 first-round Draft pick Austin Meadows -- arrive. This is how you build a great outfield, and Polanco's start with Escogido shows that the Bucs are well on their way.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.