Pirates outfield prospect Polanco is working hard to refine his game

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Gregory Polanco makes it seem so effortless, cruising from first base to third on a single or gliding deep into the right-field corner to snare a fly ball.

With a 6-foot-4 frame, Polanco generates above-average speed with his long, powerful stride. Yet years before Baseball America ranked him one of the 10 best prospects in the game, Polanco was a gangly teenager in the Dominican Republic who covered ground like a turtle.

“He was so big, but so weak,” said Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director. “When I first saw him, I thought he'd be an average runner at best.”

Gayo recalled the first time he watched Polanco run the 60-yard dash, a mess of flailing arms and elbows, frantically pumping knees and an awkward gait. He was timed at 7.4 seconds.

A year or so later, Polanco ran the 60 again. Gayo looked at his stopwatch, then did a double-take.

It read 6.9 seconds.

“When I heard that, I said, ‘Hey, I'm fast,' ” Polanco said, grinning. “I knew then I could run.”

In the Dominican, Polanco's coaches wanted to make him a left-handed pitcher. So he ran every day with the other pitchers and slowly built up strength, which Polanco now credits for his speed.

“He just matured and became a man,” Gayo said.

It was not an instant transformation. Polanco did not simply wake up one morning with blazing speed. In rookie ball in 2010, Polanco still struggled with his body and batted .202. He also had 19 stolen bases in 53 games.

By 2012, it was all coming together. At Low-A West Virginia, Polanco batted .325, discovered his home-run stroke and swiped 40 bags.

Polanco made rapid progress last year, starting the season at High-A Bradenton and ending it at Triple-A Indianapolis. In the offseason, he continued to pack on muscle without sacrificing speed and reported to spring training camp at 220 pounds.

When the players assemble for workouts, it's easy to spot Polanco's head bobbing above the crowd. He draws admiring stares from his teammates.

“Gosh, I think he's taller than I am,” laughed 6-7 reliever Jared Hughes.

“He's huge,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “He looks like a freak of nature to me. We're going to have a pretty fast outfield.”

McCutchen already has won a Gold Glove. Left fielder Starling Marte was a finalist last year. When Polanco gets to the majors — don't be surprised if it happens by July — the Pirates will have one of the most athletic outfields in the game.

“With McCutchen, Polanco and Marte, there are some tremendous things we think we can do defensively to really shrink the outfield for our pitchers,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

General manager Neal Huntington has always said it will take three players with center-fielder ability to tame the spacious outfield at PNC Park. Polanco, like Marte before him, works in center in the minors.

While Polanco was with Bradenton, the coaches started positioning him closer to the infield. It's a more aggressive defensive style that he quickly mastered.

“At first, I was surprised and I felt uncomfortable, like every fly ball was going to go over my head,” Polanco said. “After a week, I felt a lot better. Now when a fly ball comes, I can run without taking my eye off the ball and get to it easier. I feel like a more complete outfielder now.”

When Marte, McCutchen and Polanco patrol PNC Park, will any fly ball ever touch the grass?

“I would say, no,” Polanco said. “That's the attitude we have. Marte is fast. McCutchen has a Gold Glove. I'm fast, and I can cover a lot of ground. It's not going to be easy for a hitter to get a double or triple. Any fly ball out there is going to be caught.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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