Polanco adds big power to Pirates' lineup
Right fielder is hitting .387 with 12 hits through first 31 big league at-bats
Even though Gregory Polanco had only 252 at-bats above Class A prior to this season, there was plenty of talk in and around Pittsburgh that suggested the big outfielder would end up in the Major Leagues during the summer.
Polanco, 22, was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Player of the Year in 2012 after he hit .325 with 16 homers, 85 RBIs, 84 runs scored and 40 steals in 116 games for West Virginia (low Class A). As a follow-up to that marvelous campaign, the native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic batted .285 with 12 homers, 71 RBIs, 66 runs scored and 38 steals in 127 combined games for Bradenton (Class A Advanced), Altoona (Double-A) and Indianapolis (Triple-A) in 2013.
But Polanco's star began to shine even brighter after he hit .331 in 44 games for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League and won the Rookie of the Year Award and Most Valuable Player Award in 2013. Competing mainly against players older than him, Polanco missed the batting title by just two percentage points, but led the circuit in runs scored (28), total bases (82), OPS (.922) and hits (55).
"When you go down there and win the league MVP award and almost the batting title, you're doing something right," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said early in Spring Training this year.
It was also down in Bradenton, Fla., this past February when Huntington watched the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Polanco walk by and said, "Three years ago, he was a really skinny kid, but he now has man size and man strength. But the amazing thing about that body is how fast it can run and how athletic it is."
Prior to this year, Polanco's experience at Triple-A was two games and nine at-bats. For the record, it was the final two games of the 2013 season that he appeared in for Indianapolis. Nonetheless, he dominated that level during his two-plus months there to start 2014. In fact, when he was promoted to the big leagues on June 10, Polanco was leading the International League in batting average (.347), hits (86 in 62 games), total bases (134) and RBIs (49).
In his much-anticipated Major League debut, Polanco started in right field against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. When Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh, manager Clint Hurdle sat down with him for a quick chat.
"It was a small conversation similar to the one we had in big league camp," the skipper said. "I reminded him to respect everything and fear nothing, and hold on to the one word that is very descriptive of Gregory when he plays -- play. You've done the work. You've put in your time, your preparation, your focus -- now play ball."
The left-handed Polanco picked up his first Major League hit that evening -- an opposite-field single off Travis Wood. His first monster game in a Pirates uniform came three days later in Miami when he went 5-for-7, scored three runs and hit a game-winning two-run homer in the 13th inning to lift Pittsburgh to an 8-6 triumph over the Marlins.
Every night won't turn out so spectacularly, but Polanco went 12-for-31 (.387) in his first five Major League games, as the Pirates won four of those five contests to even their record at 34-34.
Polanco played center field in 2012 and '13, but he shifted over to right field this year at Indianapolis in preparation for his arrival in Pittsburgh, where reigning National League MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen patrols center field.
McCutchen offered these remarks when he was asked to describe Polanco's talents during Spring Training earlier this year.
"Gregory can do it all out there," he said. "He can hit for power, hit for average. He can bunt if he needs to lay a bunt down. He has a tremendous arm in the outfield. He can cover a lot of ground. He can get down the line. He's a great listener. He's eager to learn, he plays the game the right way and he does what he's told. You can't ask for anything more than that."
Especially considering the source, that's high praise indeed. And Pirates fans hope to see McCutchen and Polanco playing side by side in the outfield for many years to come.