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Poised for breakout, Polanco grabbing attention

Offseason workouts have RF lean, athletic and even impressing Big Papi
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gregory Polanco picked up his phone inside the visiting clubhouse at Dunedin Stadium on March 11, and the first thing he saw was a video sent from David Ortiz. It came with a message.

The video was of Polanco's second-inning home run off Joe Biagini, a towering shot that traveled so high and so far, cameras struggled to capture where beyond the right-field fence it eventually landed. Ortiz took out his phone to record the broadcast, which provided an excellent view of Polanco's left-handed swing. That's what stood out to him, anyway.

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gregory Polanco picked up his phone inside the visiting clubhouse at Dunedin Stadium on March 11, and the first thing he saw was a video sent from David Ortiz. It came with a message.

The video was of Polanco's second-inning home run off Joe Biagini, a towering shot that traveled so high and so far, cameras struggled to capture where beyond the right-field fence it eventually landed. Ortiz took out his phone to record the broadcast, which provided an excellent view of Polanco's left-handed swing. That's what stood out to him, anyway.

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"Remember that swing," Polanco said, relaying Ortiz's words. Polanco paused and broke into a big grin as his eyes lit up. "I was so happy he was telling me that. He's my idol."

A fellow native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Ortiz is a role model and big brother-type figure for Polanco. Every time they talk, Polanco said, he leaves the conversation with some important piece of advice. Ortiz always tells Polanco, "I know you can be the next me."

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Big Papi's blessing is not the only reason Polanco is the Pirates' player to watch as Opening Day approaches. After altering his offseason workout program and shedding weight to rediscover his natural athleticism, the 26-year-old right fielder looks like he is poised to finally break out this season.

After retooling his swing and taking a step forward in 2016, Polanco regressed to a .251/.305/.391 slash line and recorded 0.1 Wins Above Replacement last season, barely above the threshold for a replacement-level player. Ortiz encouraged Polanco to keep his head up amid a frustrating slew of injuries that sent him to the disabled list three times and limited his production.

"But I always have that faith, that trust I can be a great player. That's why I come here and work harder and harder," Polanco said. "[Ortiz] said dedication is the key. Forget about everything -- just dedicate to baseball, and baseball's going to pay you back."

Video: Outlook: Polanco could recover from down year

So Polanco rededicated himself this offseason. He and personal trainer Kelvin Terrero began working out in October and continued into February. Polanco focused on his core strength, gained lean muscle and lost body fat. The day he reported to Pirate City, he said he felt more motivated than ever before.

"I think he was a little embarrassed. He has high expectations," director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk said. "His physical evolution this offseason was what he once was. He got back to who he was, recommitted and re-energized to prove a lot of people wrong."

There have been flashes of Polanco's potential, including one extended stretch in 2016. Through July, he slashed .287/.361/.506 with 15 homers and 10 steals in 92 games. Then shoulder and knee injuries slowed him down, and he struggled through the season's final two months. Polanco put on weight last offseason, thinking muscle mass was the solution to his late-season slump, but his body was too tight and susceptible to nagging injuries. He played in only 108 games.

After he hit that home run in Dunedin, Fla., Polanco said he "didn't feel like that at all" last spring. There was never a point in 2017, it seemed, that he was fully healthy.

But Polanco feels strong and athletic now, and he's put together an encouraging Spring Training overall. He is part of Pittsburgh's core, signed to a long-term extension and bound to bat in the middle of the order. Could this be his year? Keep watching, Big Papi.

"I'm going to keep working because I'm on a mission," Polanco said. "I want to play the whole season."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Gregory Polanco