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Despite strong spring, top Bucs prospect Polanco optioned to Triple-A

| Friday, March 14, 2014, 10:00 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats against the Twins on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp Friday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco plays a ball off the wall in right field against the Twins on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp on Friday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco catches a ball during drills at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp on Friday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Brandon Cumpton delivers to the plate against the Phillies Friday, March 14, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Brandon Cumpton delivers to the plate against the Phillies Friday, March 14, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco shares a laugh with Starling Marte during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp on Friday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco works out with Andrew McCutchen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp on Friday.

BRADENTON, Fla. — There was not much more Gregory Polanco could have done this spring to make his case for the starting right-field job.

The Pirates' top prospect posted an .804 on-base plus slugging percentage as a 22-year-old in major league camp. He homered in the first at-bat of his first start of the spring against the Yankees.

He scorched doubles against major league starting pitchers in Detroit's Rick Porcello and Philadelphia's A.J. Burnett. He often hit in the No. 3 hole. He showcased all five of his tools.

Yet Friday, the Pirates optioned Polanco — baseball's No. 10 overall prospect according to Baseball America — to Triple-A.

Part of the reasoning is 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 want their prized prospect to earn more seasoning.

At the winter meetings, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Polanco would not begin the year with the major league club.

“Our goal is to put him in a position not to just make the major league team but to help us win games,” Huntington said Friday.

“He's ahead of the curve for a guy with less than 300 plate appearances above the A-ball level, but he still has some work to do. … Whether it's gaining experience in facing better changeups in offensive counts, better breaking balls in offensive counts, understanding how to handle the fastball away.

“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.”

While Polanco has just 295 plate appearances above Single-A, he logged 265 more in the competitive Dominican winter league where he earned top rookie and MVP honors.

The demotion did not come as a surprise to Polanco.

“They told me in the beginning in the spring,” Polanco said of starting the year in Triple-A. “They want me seeing more older pitchers in Triple-A. They are a lot better than Double-A and Single-A (pitchers).”

The Pirates will open the season with either Travis Snider, Jose Tabata or Jaff Decker in right field or perhaps a combination of those players.

But Pirates manager Clint Hurdle concluded Friday's meeting with Polanco with an important message.

Said Polanco: “(Hurdle) said ‘I want to see you as soon as I can.' ”

Gaining separation?

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and several scouts were impressed with Bryan Morris' effort against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

Morris threw two innings of shutout relief that included three strikeouts. Morris showcased a sharp slider that touched 90 mph, according to a scout.

“We like Bryan Morris,” Hurdle said. “The command improved. The quality of the pitches improved. He has more velocity.”

While Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson are assured of bullpen spots, Morris, Stolmy Pimentel, Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro are out of options and are competing for perhaps three roster spots.

Odds and ends

Reliever Duke Welker was optioned to Triple-A. ... Francisco Liriano threw four innings and reached 70 pitches in a minor league game ... Jameson Taillon (blister) was also scheduled to throw.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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