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Gorman: Pirates test patience with Polanco

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco sprints around the basepath during base-running drills at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014, 10:39 p.m.
 

Since Sports Illustrated dubbed him baseball's “Next Big Thing” late last month, everyone is waiting for the Pirates to promote Gregory Polanco to the majors.

And waiting.

The 22-year-old Polanco is a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder viewed as a five-tool prospect, one who is supposed to star in right field and complete the Dream Outfield with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

“I haven't seen him play lately,” Pirates pitcher and former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole said, “but I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that the guy's a big leaguer.”

Except, of course, the Pirates.

Despite public pressure to promote Polanco, the Pirates are keeping their top prospect at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he has hit .373/.440/.613 with 11 doubles, five triples, five home runs and 35 RBIs in 38 games.

The front office warns that Polanco has fewer than 500 plate appearances against pitching above Single-A and wants him to get more experience.

“We know that the fans are clamoring for Gregory Polanco,” Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. “We want to see him here as well, but we want to see him here at a point in time when he can succeed, hit the ground running like an Andrew McCutchen did after well over 1,000 plate appearances against experienced pitchers.”

The Pirates are preaching patience with Polanco, showing theirs while testing ours.

The pressure mounted last week, when Yahoo! Sports first reported that, during spring training, Polanco declined the Pirates' $25 million, seven-year contract offer with three club options.

Conventional wisdom is that the Pirates are delaying his major-league debut to prevent Polanco from reaching Super 2 status, thereby keeping him from becoming eligible for arbitration after two years of service instead of three.

Coonelly refuses to comment on the contract offer but contended that “Super 2 service time is not the factor why Gregory Polanco is in Triple-A.” Coonelly added that Polanco will “be here sometime this summer. I'm confident of that.”

Their concern is that Polanco could encounter adversity the way Pedro Alvarez did, being sent to Triple-A when he struggled with his swing in his sophomore season after collecting 16 home runs and 64 RBIs as a rookie.

The Pirates don't want to damage their prized prospect.

“It's one thing to say he's ready for the big leagues,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “It's another to say he's ready to jump in to the expectation level that he's going to have right now.”

Instead of watching baseball's Next Big Thing roam right field, we've seen the Pirates try Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and infielders Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Gaby Sanchez.

Because, you know, Travis Ishikawa is no longer available.

Instead of promoting Polanco for the first Sunday night game at PNC Park, the Pirates called up Brent Morel and Jaff Decker.

Are the Pirates willing to withstand public pressure once again, only one season after the end of the 20-year losing streak?

“That's really a question of trust, and you have to earn trust,” Coonelly said. “I think we earned trust with some people last year, but I still think we have some work to do.”

Especially with their players.

That the front office not only allowed veterans A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau to leave through free agency but also added only Ishikawa, Chris Stewart and Edinson Volquez was a disservice to the corps that won 94 games and made the playoffs.

With the Pirates 8.5 games behind the Brewers in NL Central, a June callup for Polanco might be too late. The Bucs play series against the Yankees, Orioles, Nationals, Mets and Dodgers, and all have better records.

“Our won-loss record or a positional level of production –— we've got some other positions that are not as productive as right field, by the way — that doesn't impact whether we think a player is ready to take the next step and ready to jump into this environment,” Huntington said. “If it does, we're making decisions for the wrong reasons. And as excited as we are about Gregory Polanco, and what we think he can become, our job is to help him become that as quickly as he can.”

And as excited as we are about Gregory Polanco, we're hoping the Pirates hurry up and get him that experience.

Our patience is wearing thin.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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