Polanco offering reasons to believe
On May 28 last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up a promising right fielder named Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers were struggling, six games below .500. You probably know the rest of the story: Puig's brilliant rookie campaign helped the Dodgers to a 92-70 regular season record and playoff berth.
On June 17 last season, the Tampa Bay Rays called up their top prospect, right fielder Wil Myers. The Rays were in fourth place in the American League East. You might know the rest of the story: Myers led the club in RBIs the rest of the way, and the Rays advanced to the postseason.
A week ago, the Pirates called up their top prospect, right fielder Gregory Polanco.
The rest of the story? Will Polanco help turn around a season like Puig or Myers? No one knows, but it's been a riveting first week.
Since Polanco was recalled and inserted at or near the top of the lineup, the Pirates have won two series and four of six games. The Pirates have advanced to within one game of .500 at 34-35 as they return home to host the Reds at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday. In his first six games, Polanco has 12 hits and a game-winning home run while showing speed in the bases and range in right field.
Has Pirates manager Clint Hurdle ever seen a young player transitions so smoothly?
“He's off to a good start. Just give him some time and let him play,” Hurdle said. “I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. There's a lot we haven't seen yet.”
What the Pirates have seen has been encouraging.
The tools are as advertised. Polanco has shown power. His game-winning home run Friday left his bat at 107 mph. In batting practice, he reached the second deck at Marlins Park. He's shown rare speed for a 6-foot-4, 220-pound player. He's made routine grounders must-watch theatre as Polanco produced three infield hits in two days in Miami. On Sunday, he turned a routine grounder to short into an infield hit.
Since Polanco was recalled, the Pirates have recorded a season-best 18-hit effort and a 17-hit effort as Polanco has helped lengthen and deepen the lineup.
The Pirates' offensive surge — in part driven by Polanco — has helped the club initially weather the losses of Gerrit Cole, Neil Walker and Francisco Liriano in the short term.
Polanco's approach has been as encouraging as his results.
It wasn't just the power or the bat speed, it was the advanced approach. Polanco used the whole field, slashing 98 mph fastballs to left and turning on breaking balls. The home run Friday came on a sixth consecutive slider from Marlins lefty Mike Dunn to the Pirates' 22-year-old lefty. Instead of being overly anxious in hunting a fastball, Polanco was focused on the opposite-field approach until he saw a hanging slider he could turn on.
Polanco became the first rookie to compile a five-hit game within his first four major league games since Cecil Travis in 1933 with the Washington Senators.
Polanco said he was not surprised by anything in his first week. He expected more advanced stuff and sequences from major league pitchers.
“I was just trying to stay to the opposite field,” Polanco said of his 13th-inning at-bat Friday. “I was just trying to fight.”
Hurdle described the Friday night performance as a potential “coming out party” for Polanco.
“He's very grounded,” Hurdle said. “He can look in the (Miami) dugout, there's a guy that's broken in and been doing some things, throwing things in another gear every year he's been here in (Giancarlo) Stanton. But that's down the road.”
But perhaps not too far down the road for Polanco.
Note: Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen was named National League player of the week on Monday. He led the majors with four home runs, 13 RBI, a 1.034 slugging percentage and 30 total bases last week.