Outfield prospect Polanco fulfilling expectations

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

ALTOONA — Gregory Polanco walks into a room, and everything about him just seems big.

Big frame.

Big handshake.

Big smile.

This season also brought big expectations after Polanco's breakout 2012 in Low-A West Virginia, and so far he is proving last year was no fluke. The 21-year-old outfielder needed just 57 games in High-A Bradenton to earn a promotion to Double-A Altoona, where he made his debut last Friday and went 3 for 5 with two RBI.

“Down (in Bradenton), I was doing the things right, working like they wanted me to work, doing my job, playing how I had to play,” Polanco said.

At the beginning of last season, Polanco was just another prospect trying to make it to the big leagues. Playing in the shadow of outfield prospects Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman, Polanco wasn't even considered the best position prospect at West Virginia at the beginning of last season after infielder Alen Hanson got off to a hot start.

Polanco's .406 average and 30 RBI in July changed that. He finished the season with a .325 average, 85 RBI and 40 stolen bases and was named both the South Atlantic League player of the year and the Pirates' minor league player of the year.

He debuted on Baseball America's top prospects list at No. 51 this year and appeared for the first time on Baseball Prospectus' list at No. 44. More recently, ESPN.com's Keith Law named Polanco the No. 22 prospect in baseball in his midseason update.

Polanco knows all eyes are on him, and he's OK with that.

“The pitchers now know me, and they think, ‘Oh, this is one of the best hitters of the league,' so they're going to throw me differently,” said Polanco, who signed at 17 years old as a free agent from the Dominican Republic. “I just try to do what I know to do and keep working. I think that's good for me because I like the challenge.”

Polanco also gets encouragement from a fellow outfielder who knows something of navigating through the ranks. Marte and Polanco both hail from Santo Domingo, and Polanco said the Pirates' left fielder, who made his big league debut last July, is like a brother.

“After the games sometimes he'll call me or I'll call him or we text and talk about how it's going,” Polanco said. “He told me just keep playing, keep doing what you do. He told me, ‘I know you can hit, and you're going to be good.' ”

Curve pitcher Jameson Taillon said Polanco “has that air about him when he's out there that he knows what he's doing and he's a big-time guy.”

Not to mention the type of guy who can help a pitcher.

“I gave up a fly ball the other night, and it was kind of in an awkward spot, like a triangle between second base, right and center, and I forgot we had his 6-foot-5-long legs out there, and he was just camped right under it,” Taillon said.

Polanco said when he started the season in High-A that it was his goal to be in Altoona by mid-season. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the organization thought he was ready.

“The pitchers' command is going to be a little better, the consistency of their stuff is going to be a little better, and they're going to challenge him a little bit more as a hitter,” Huntington said. “Much like any young hitter, as long as he commands the strike zone, he's going to have a lot of success.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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