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Polanco off to red-hot start at Triple-A Indianapolis

| Monday, April 14, 2014, 7:54 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats against the Rays on Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.

CINCINNATI — In the middle of March, Gregory Polanco was summoned to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle's office in Bradenton, Fla., and was told he would open the season with Triple-A Indianapolis despite having a strong spring in major league camp.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Hurdle told Polanco he hoped to see him soon in Pittsburgh.

Hurdle might not have to wait much longer.

Polanco, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, was named the International League's top hitter of the week on Monday. Polanco is off to a blistering start, posting a .465 batting average, .511 on-base percentage and .744 slugging mark in his first 11 games entering Monday, including six extra-base hits and two home runs.

Hurdle said he has spoken with the Indianapolis coaching staff regarding the performance of one of the game's consensus top-20 prospects.

“He's hitting the ball hard where it's pitched. He's playing both sides of the ball. His base-running has been good,” Hurdle said.

But?

“It's the volume of games you keep in perspective,” Hurdle said.

Polanco entered the spring with just 295 plate appearances above A-ball, but he did win MVP and Rookie of the League honors in the competitive Dominican winter league.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in March one of the main reasons Polanco was sent to Triple-A was so he could log more at-bats against veteran pitchers, who would better alter their pitch sequences. So far, Polanco has been up to the challenge.

Polanco could be ready before the Pirates are ready for him, as most organizations refrain from elevating their most talented prospects until they clear projected Super 2 status so the club can avoid paying an extra year of arbitration.

Stewart closing in on return

Pirates catcher Chris Stewart caught back-to-back games over the weekend with Triple-A Indianapolis and has reported no setbacks in his return from a knee injury.

“I spoke with Chris (Sunday) evening. He's doing fine. He's making progress,” Hurdle said. “He actually caught a seven-inning game Saturday and then caught for all four-plus hours of the game (Sunday). He's gotten nine or 10 at-bats the last few days so he's in a good place. He said he felt good (Sunday) after catching seven and nine innings. That's a good sign.

Stewart underwent arthroscopic surgery last month after tearing his right meniscus in spring training. He was placed on the disabled list March 29 retroactive to March 21. He now is eligible to return.

The Pirates acquired Stewart from the Yankees during the offseason to serve as Russell Martin's backup.

Tony Sanchez was scheduled to begin the season at Triple-A before Stewart's injury. Sanchez has recorded two game-winning hits in the early going.

While a limited offensive player, Stewart is regarded as a strong all-around defensive catcher.

Work horses

After ranking second in the National League in relief innings last season (545 23), Hurdle would like his starters to take on a greater burden of work this year. The Pirates entered Monday 10th in the league in relief innings.

“It's a Catch-22 situation,” Hurdle said. “If you continue to ask (the bullpen) to perform at that high level of performance and excellence, eventually it will catch up to them. You'd like to see the starter take it a little deeper.”

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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