Polanco, Herrera signify Bucs' Latin American focus
Prospects represent Pirates as members of World Team in All-Star Futures Game
NEW YORK -- It was in May 2007 when, just months after being named the Pirates' principal owner, Bob Nutting traveled to the Dominican Republic. His intent was to assess the organization's presence in a country that has long been a hotbed for baseball talent.
What Nutting found was a facility that was inadequate, fields that had been overgrown by weeds and on-site resources that lacked both pizzazz and practicality. To Nutting, it was obvious why the Pirates had lost their pull in Latin America. Their facility was not a recruiting tool, nor was the organization pouring in the financial resources to stay competitive for top talent.
Nutting, in one of his first major decisions as owner, almost immediately began to draw up a blueprint for change.
Within two years, the Pirates would have a new "Academia de Béisbol," covering 46 acres in the Dominican principality of El Toro. The $5 million investment was a start. Then, it was up to Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, to find and sign the players to fill it. He was promised that more money would be poured into his budget.
According to general manager Neal Huntington, the financial resources have nearly tripled since Nutting's 2007 visit. The international staff has also increased dramatically.
"The impact of positive or negative efforts in Latin America is typically not felt at the Major League until years into the future," Huntington added. "It is our hope and belief that we are seeing the early stages of increased production as a result of the high-quality work done by many people in Latin America."
On Sunday, the Pirates were given a glimpse.
The organization was represented by a pair of Latin American prospects -- center fielder Gregory Polanco and second baseman Dilson Herrera -- in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Citi Field. Gayo, under Huntington's tenure as GM, signed both.
It took a $75,000 signing bonus in 2009 to ink Polanco, now at Double-A Altoona and ranked by MLB.com as the organization's fourth-best prospect. A year later -- the same season the Pirates committed a franchise international record $2.6 million bonus to sign 16-year-old Luis Heredia -- the organization also quietly signed Herrera for $220,000.
At the age of 19, Herrera has already risen to low Class A West Virginia.
"We must take advantage of all possible sources of talent, and Latin America has always been very productive," said assistant GM Kyle Stark. "Our efforts down there involve financial commitment through ownership -- both in resources and acquiring players -- but mainly having talented people running the operation, which we have in Rene Gayo on the scouting side and Larry Sutton on the development side. Rene's track record speaks for itself, and we believe the results are showing up in Pittsburgh."
With Starling Marte leading the wave, the Pirates have inundated their Minor League system with several of Gayo's signees. One quarter of the Pirates' current prospect list on MLB.com is composed of players out of Latin America. Shortstop Alen Hanson ranks third, followed by Polanco (4th), Heredia (5th), Willy Garcia (16th) and Herrera (18th).
Polanco, 21, started for the World Team in Sunday's showcase game. Batting in the seventh spot and playing center field, he fouled out in a second-inning at-bat against Taijuan Walker (Mariners) and drew a walk in the fourth off Anthony Ranaudo (Red Sox).
"It means a lot to me," Polanco said of earning the starting assignment. "Everybody is watching you. I'm excited."
After a breakout season with West Virginia last year, Polanco started 2013 with Class A Advanced Bradenton (Fla.). His stay didn't last long. After producing a slash line of .312/.364/.472 in 57 games with the Marauders, Polanco earned a promotion to Double-A. He has hit .287 with six extra-base hits and 18 RBIs in 22 games since.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Polanco pointed to adjustments that he made with his batting stance last summer as one of the biggest reasons for his improved plate discipline.
"It allows me to see the pitch better," said Polanco, who has struck out only 49 times in 305 at-bats. "When I get ready early, I see the pitch coming earlier and I recognize if it's a ball or a strike. Before, I would just swing at everything. Now, I have more discipline."
Polanco has the physical tools to stay in center field, though Andrew McCutchen's presence in Pittsburgh could prompt an eventual move to one of the corner spots for Polanco. Regardless, the Pirates are pleased with his pace of development.
"Offensively, he's focused on continuing to learn how he's being attacked and game plan accordingly," Stark said. "Defensively, the focus has been on improving on balls over his head. He's made solid strides in both areas."
Hererra entered as a defensive replacement for the World Team in the sixth on Sunday and lined out in his only at-bat of the US Team's 4-2 win over the World club.
At 19, Hererra was the second-youngest player selected for the Futures Game. Playing against older competition, however, is routine for the Columbia native.
"Everyone says I'm young, but I just try to do everything the older guys do," Herrera said through translator Shane Barclay of Major League Baseball's Commissioner's Office. "I know I have the ability to do that as well."
After playing in the states for the first time last season, Herrera is batting .260 with 17 doubles, seven homers and 37 RBIs in 72 games with West Virginia. The Pirates are grooming Herrera as a second baseman, a position that Herrera described as "easy." It will be his bat, though, that carries him to Pittsburgh.
"It's been a marvelous season so far," Herrera said. "My average is a little bit lower than they wanted it, but I know where I want to be. I'm working every day to try and improve that."
And of the Futures Game experience: "I'm happy to represent my country and the Pirates."