The unique case of Pirates phenom Gregory Polanco
He is called “Avatar” by teammates in the Triple-A clubhouse, a reference to his seemingly part-human, part-other-worldly skills.
Dean Treanor has been on minor league fields for 26 years as a manager or coach. The Indianapolis manager can recall only one player who made so much improvement so quickly: Miguel Cabrera.
The Pirates' top prospect has grown from a player Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo said moved like a “sick giraffe” when he signed the lanky Dominican at 16 years old into a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who one National League scout said runs like Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome.
Evaluators, coaches and players struggle to come up with a perfect comparable for the 22-year-old. Over and over the word “unique” surfaces regarding Gregory Polanco.
Something is unique or it is not. Something cannot possess degrees of uniqueness. To be unique is to be one of a kind. The word often is misused, but it is being employed correctly with Polanco and his situation.
While stalling a top prospect's arrival to avoid millions in extra arbitration costs is a common practice by major league clubs, Polanco reportedly rejected a seven-year, $25 million contract from the Pirates. The Pirates are not believed to have offered such dollars to a player who had yet to take a major league at-bat. Only the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays are known to have made similar contract offers to inexperienced players.
And at some point in June, when Polanco is expected to fill the Pirates' right-field void, he might be the unusual type of rookie who can excel immediately.
A unique situation
Polanco hears the clamoring. Why is he not in Pittsburgh?
Two weeks ago, Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark traveled to Gwinnett, Ga., to watch Indianapolis and spoke with Polanco and Treanor.
“The three of us were standing there talking before the game. Kyle asks (Polanco), ‘Are you getting a lot (of questions)?' ” Treanor said. “Polanco said, ‘If you only had an idea of how much it is.' … I know he's anxious to get there. That comes out. We've had that discussion. You can just tell. He cannot not hear about things. He cannot not hear the questions.”
Polanco understands Super 2 dynamics. He understands clubs want to save dollars and maximize their windows of control over top young players.
“I don't worry about that because I don't have that in my hands. I just go out and play,” Polanco said. “If I let that go in my mind, I'll be thinking too much. I know some day I'm going to go up there.”
What surprised some is that a player who signed for $150,000 in 2009 reportedly would decline an eight-figure contract.
“I don't have any comment on that,” Polanco said of the offer. “I don't talk about that.”
What is unusual is that in an era when young players often opt for club-friendly deals and security, Polanco is betting on himself, and perhaps for good reason.
They say players cannot walk off the island.
A player cannot walk to the major leagues from the Dominican — he has to hit his way there. The Dominican is scouted heavily through showcases where batters sell out for power and where pitchers are concerned most with radar gun readings. Gayo prefers scouting games.
“In an area where everyone is flailing away in the carnival show, he stood out because he played the game,” Gayo said. “He had no problem taking a walk. That's kind of why I liked him.”
In 463 minor league games, Polanco has struck out 303 times — an above-average contact rate — and walked 184 times, unusual patience for a young player.
“The pitcher's pitch. I don't have to swing,” Polanco said. “You have to be more disciplined. You can't get crazy at the plate. Let the ball get deeper. It lets you see the breaking ball, the changeup, so I recognize the off-speed.”
What helps Polanco to track pitches longer is above-average bat speed.
“If you had to pick out one thing that really impresses me, it's bat speed,” Treanor said. “Especially as tall as he is with long arms, the bat speed jumps out. He is a unique player.”
Despite his size, Polanco has a short swing with an efficient path to the ball. On Friday night against the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, the left-handed hitting Polanco laced a single to left-center field and launched a sacrifice fly near the left-field warning track.
Indianapolis teammate Chris Dickerson has been with Polanco since spring training.
“His swing, how long it stays in the zone is unusual,” Dickerson said. “I think he's just unique, period.”
To find an athlete with the size and speed of Polanco, one typically has to go to other sports.
“I'm trying to think of a baseball player who is that tall and can run like him,” Dickerson said. “It's so unusual someone that tall and long can move like that. I can't really put my finger on (a comparison).”
Had Polanco been raised in the United States, perhaps he would have been Division I shooting guard — he's been watching the NBA playoffs with roommate Michael Martinez — or in this year's NFL Draft as a rangy wide receiver. A National League scout had a different comparison.
“California Chrome has nothing on him when he goes first to third,” the scout said. “He's an absolute thoroughbred when he gets rolling.”
Last June, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays received immediate impacts from top prospects Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers, respectively. Can Polanco provide the same impact for the Pirates, whose right fielders have combined for the NL's 12th-ranked on-base plus slugging percentage at the position?
Want reason to believe? See Polanco's unusual trajectory:
• He made the jump to Double-A last summer and walked (36) as often as he struck out (36).
• He was named MVP of the competitive Dominican league over the winter.
• Invited to major league camp this spring, Polanco often batted third in the lineup and posted a .804 OPS.
• This spring at Triple-A, he flirted with a .400 batting average entering late May.
At every new stop, instead of suffering through significant struggles, Polanco has improved. It's an unusual trajectory, one Treanor has known only once before.
“The only comparison I would make, and this is not comparing the two, but the impact, the youth and jumps are like Cabrera,” said Treanor, a former Triple-A manager with the Miami Marlins.
One National League scout said Polanco reminds him of a “peak Josh Hamilton.”
“I've seen him for three years at all levels. Improves with age. Does it all: speed and power with great makeup and aptitude,” the scout said.
Baseball America ranked Polanco as the game's 10th overall prospect entering the season.
“Most rookies, it's hard for them,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said. “I don't think he'll have Puig's impact … but his track record for the last year and a half says he has made it look easy. It's hard for me to not believe in that track record and athleticism.”
Said Gayo: “Guys who are good, when you push them, they get better. The new thing they sell in development, where Johnny has to stay there for 100 years until he figures it out, that's not how it works. The gifted ones, you challenge them, they rise to the occasion.”
Phone call away
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Super 2 is not the “driving factor” in Polanco not being with the Pirates. Regardless to what degree future dollars are a factor, Polanco is refining his game.
Polanco still is learning to play right field. Before most games in early work, Treanor turns a pitching machine into a fly-ball launching device.
“It's every day,” Treanor said. “(Friday) was his best day. He even said he feels so much better out there. We are asking a lot of him, but he knows he has to put the time in.”
Polanco's discipline can be traced to his mother and father, both of whom are police officers in Santo Domingo. He calls them every night from his apartment.
“My parents tell me to be patient, to keep working hard,” Polanco said. “It's all about work.”
Treanor and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often have phone calls, too.
“Clint and I talk a lot,” Treanor said. “A year ago at this time, this kid was in A-ball. You look at his stat line, people say, ‘Come on, this guy is ready.' ... This is not a company line. The Pirates are doing the right thing.”
Does Polanco think he's ready?
“Whenever they call me,” he said, “I'm going to be ready.”