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Pirates playing waiting game on when to promote OF Polanco

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, April 28, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats against the Rays during a spring training game Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats against the Rays during a spring training game Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.

ST. LOUIS — Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco grew up in the Dominican Republic, and both make their homes in the capital city of Santo Domingo. During winter ball last year, they played side by side in the outfield for Leones del Escogido.

Marte, 25, is quickly establishing himself as a star in the major leagues. The Pirates left fielder was a runner-up for a 2013 Gold Glove Award. This spring, he got a six-year, $31 million contract extension.

Polanco, 22, is the top-rated player in the Pirates' farm system. At the start of spring training, Baseball America ranked him the 10th-best prospect in all of the minor leagues.

Who is more famous back in the Dominican?

“Right now, it's me,” Marte said with a smile. “But, you know, everything changes. When he gets here, maybe things will be different.”

When will that be?

“Soon,” Marte said, smiling again. “I know he's getting ready.”

The question is debated dozens of times a day all over Pittsburgh on Twitter, on radio call-in shows, in the bleachers at PNC Park and in the team's front office, too. When will Polanco make his Pirates debut?

It's a complicated situation. As it gauges Polanco's development, Pirates management also must consider what is best for the franchise — not only this season, but for several years ahead.

The easy answer is Polanco, who is off to a torrid start at Triple-A Indianapolis, will get the call sometime this year. Baseball America's scouting report projected him to take over in right field in Pittsburgh by mid-summer. Many scouts, coaches and even other players expect him to be in the majors by the All-Star break.

“You know he's going to come up,” said pitcher Casey Sadler, who got his call-up from Indy on Sunday. “It's just a matter of when.”

As the Pirates continue to struggle for runs — they were shut out in two of three games last weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals — pressure builds to bring up Polanco sooner than later.

“Polanco is embarrassing the Pirates by them not bringing him to the big leagues ASAP,” said a rival team's scout who recently watched Polanco play for a week-long stretch. “He would be an immediate impact bat in the middle of their lineup. He still may win Rookie of the Year.”

In 2009, general manager Neal Huntington authorized the $150,000 bonus it took to sign Polanco as an international free agent. Huntington watched patiently as Polanco worked his way from the Dominican Summer League through rookie ball and the low minors.

Last season, Huntington approved his staff's recommendations to elevate Polanco from High-A Bradenton (57 games) to Double-A Altoona (68 games) to Indy (two games) in a six-month span. And Huntington has read the glowing reports from his scouts this year.

“In the big picture, it's (about) his readiness to come up and help this club win games and to thrive,” Huntington said Sunday. “While we are very much a statistically driven organization, it goes a heck of a lot deeper than a batting average. He's learning to make adjustments to how (pitchers) adjust to him. That's a crucial part of the next step of his development.”

With elite skills, Polanco figures to make a lot of money in the big leagues. Bringing him up now would hasten that process.

Usually, a player needs three years of service time in the majors before being eligible for salary arbitration. Those three years of arbitration are when a player remains under team control, but his salary escalates rapidly.

A player can get a special fourth year of arbitration — called Super 2 status — if he's between two and three years of service time and ranks among the top 22 percent of two-year players in terms of service time.

The Super 2 cutoff varies from year to year, as it is not tied to a specific date. Usually, a player who is called up in mid- to late-June will not be Super 2 eligible.

But the cutoff qualification grew from 17 percent to 22 percent under the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, so the cutoff date likely will start to move toward July.

“In my opinion, too many organizations are worried about the Super 2 status,” said Jim Duquette, a former GM and current MLB Network Radio analyst. “Winning is too important to be overly concerned about that service-time issue. If the player is ready and is better than the major league alternatives, then he should be brought up as soon as he's ready.”

Huntington is frustrated by the commonly held notion that Super 2 figures large in his decision-making process.

“It's not a driving factor for us,” Huntington said. “We've worn (that criticism) every year with a guy in Triple-A who's doing well. We were holding Pedro Alvarez back. We were holding Starling Marte back. We were holding Andrew McCutchen back. I would argue that the guys who have come up with significant Triple-A experience and hit the ground running have had fewer pitfalls than the guys who, as I look back on now, I feel we've rushed.”

Alvarez got 367 at-bats in 101 games at Indy before his callup. Marte had 388 at-bats in 99 games. McCutchen had 780 at-bats in 201 games.

Polanco has gotten 99 at-bats in 25 games at Triple-A, dating to last year.

The exception, Huntington noted, is pitcher Gerrit Cole. The top overall pick in 2011, Cole made just 38 starts in the minors before being promoted to Pittsburgh on June 11, 2013. He has been dazzling in the big leagues.

“That's a rarity,” Huntington said.

Perhaps the Pirates have the same kind of rare talent in Polanco.

“I think the Pirates handled the Cole issue well,” Duquette said. “And would expect that they'd handle the Polanco timetable in a similar way, without regard to his Super 2 status.”

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

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