BRADENTON, Fla. – While the decision to option Gregory Polanco to Triple-A on Friday might have disappointed you it should not have come as a surprise. Pirates GM Neal Huntington essentially said at the winter meetings that there was no chance in heck Polanco would break camp with the team. You know how this works. Just ask Gerrit Cole, Wil Myers and countless others.
A major part of the reasoning is no doubt tied to economic realities as the Pirates can extend their control over Polanco and avoid paying him an extra year of arbitration by delaying his arrival. But the Pirates also contend they want their prized prospect to have more seasoning.
Now this spring Polanco has not seemed in need of much seasoning. In the first at bat of his first start this spring he homered against the Yankees. He doubled against a Rick Porcello changeup in a hitter’s count. He made A.J. Burnett look 37 years old with another double. Clint Hurdle batted him in the No. 3 spot a number of times so he wasn’t sneaking up on any pitchers. Yesterday at Port Charlotte, he beat out an infield hit with blazing speed for a big man. He has all five tools and an important sixth tool: plate discipline. I didn’t see him chase much out of the zone this spring, though a tough lefty in Matt Moore got him to chase a slider in the dirt last week for a K.
Huntington said in the winter that the spring is an awful time to evaluate a player but he was still impressed with Polanco this spring.
“Very encouraging signs. The 1-1 breaking ball hit (vs. the Yankees) off of a major league starting pitcher. The approach he took with a nice easy swing. He laced a fastball-count changeup off of Porcell. Very encouraging sings,” Huntington said. “The fact that he can beat a ball into the ground and beat it out four or five times in major league spring training against major league infielders gives you the feeling that when he does get into a tough stretch his legs will allow him to find a way on base.”
So what exactly does Polanco need to work on?
“He got beat on some pitches. He tried to do too much at times. When he’s ready he’ll stay withing himself and drive the ball gap to gap. (This spring) was an affirmation of how talented this young man is and that we have some work to do. …He covers so much ground. He can make up for some technique that needs some work. The arm strength is good. He has all the tools in the world to be a quality defensive outfielder.”
Huntington indicated, emotionally, he wanted Polanco with the team to break camp.
“Our challenge is not to get too excited too soon and put him in a position he is not ready for. That’s what has made this decision so difficult. He is so talented,” Huntington said. “History dictates some things. Some of the worst moves are guys who were rushed.”
I asked Huntington about the team’s placement on projected win curve and if it made it more difficult not to break camp with the best 25 and ignore service-time issues. Huntington notes his focus is on the long-term window.
“Every decision we make is to keep that window open as long we possibly can. To say that’s it’s going to stay open and we’re are going to be a playoff team for the next 50 years is probably a little bit ambitious,” Huntington said. “But we are certainly not looking at our window as a finite number of days or a finite number of opportunities.”
It’s true Polanco only has 295 plate appearances above A-ball in the minor leagues. But he logged another 265 in the Dominican Winter League, which is a big deal to players and coaches over there, and he won ROY and MVP honors. Evaluators were blown away by his improvement over the last year.
“He has so much ability. He has worked so hard. The improvements he’s made over the last two years are like few that I’ve seen,” Huntington said.
Here’s what we do know: Polanco is probably the club’s third most valuable asset after Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Here’s what we do know: we won’t be waiting long to see Polanco.
See you in June, El Coffee.