Bucs, fans must have patience with Polanco
Highly touted prospect has plenty of talent but will need time to flourish
PITTSBURGH -- On the second day, Gregory Polanco fished around in his locker for his batting gloves and was approached, in succession, by a radio guy, a TV reporter and cameraman, and then another TV reporter and cameraman.
Polanco warned each of them that he was in a hurry, because he wanted to hit the field for early work. And then, almost comically, he was asked some variation of the same question by each -- something to the effect of, "Now that the hoopla over your debut is out of the way, are you able to just get back to doing what you do?"
The obvious answer -- the one Polanco was too polite to respond with -- was that no, he wasn't able to do get back to doing what he does, because he was too busy answering questions about doing what he does.
The cages were waiting.
But this, Polanco is quickly coming to understand, is life as The Next Big Thing. For the Pirates' most scrutinized position prospect since at least Andrew McCutchen, and possibly since Barry Bonds, the questions will keep coming, the box-score lines will be a daily source of curiosity (he's 2-for-10 with an RBI, for the record) and the newly purchased No. 25 jerseys will surround him in the stands.
People are, naturally and understandably, piqued by Polanco, possessor of a .945 OPS with Triple-A Indianapolis, developing power, a strong arm, an amazingly swift and graceful stride for a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, and a wealth of Darryl Strawberry comparisons.
"He has the potential to do some great things," reigning National League MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen said. "We just have to help him get comfortable."
Indeed, Pittsburgh's Dream Outfield, as it's come to be called, is a reality in the sense that Polanco and Starling Marte now both actively flank McCutchen. It's a group that could be unmatched in terms of its athleticism and upside.
And oh, by the way, they're all under contractual control through at least 2018.
But while Polanco, the Bucs' top-ranked prospect, could be a quick contributor to a club that needs the contributions -- with Neil Walker, Gerrit Cole and now Francisco Liriano all on the mend -- baseball's underlying and unrelenting truth must also be understood. It takes a good long while to know what you've got, both in the context of a season and a career.
"In that outfield, the good guy is McCutchen," a scout said. "The other guys? We'll see."
The scout was uniquely positioned to make such a statement, because his name is Rene Gayo, and he's the man who signed both Marte and Polanco out of the Dominican Republic for the grand total of … drumroll please … $240,000.
Back then, Polanco resembled, in Gayo's words, "a sick giraffe," and was being showcased as a pitcher. And Marte was an 18-year-old shortstop with a good arm and good glove but a bat that lacked pop.
Marte made it to the bigs in 2012 and is now in his second full season, demonstrating in vivid detail the difficulty of adjustments at this level. He has a .697 OPS, he's struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances, he's battled minor back and hamstring issues and, only recently -- after spending a few days on the bench -- has he begun to resemble the offensive sparkplug he was in the Pirates' run to the NL Wild Card Game last year.
Polanco is sure to endure his own variation of the theme at some point. The kid known as "El Coffee" needs time to brew.
The Bucs, you might have noticed, were awfully careful with the timing of Polanco's promotion, not just because of the obvious impact it would have on his future arbitration eligibility but also --- whether people acknowledge it or not -- the simple truth that he had logged just 500 at-bats above the Class A level.
"A lot of people gave [GM] Neal [Huntington] a lot of heat [for not promoting Polanco sooner], and I thought that was ridiculous," Gayo said. "The reality is guys don't spend enough time in the Minor Leagues. We need to remember that last year at this time, Polanco was in A-ball. There would have been nothing wrong with him finishing this year in Triple-A."
Nor will there be anything wrong with the 22-year-old Polanco finishing the year, well, unfinished.
"I have an internal number to find out who the hitter is going to be, what you think he might be," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He won't get there this year."
Are you ready for the number? It might not jibe well with the storyline of Polanco as season savior.
The number Hurdle clings to is 1,500 at-bats.
Or roughly three full seasons
"You say that to some people in today's game, and they freak out," Hurdle said. "They can't believe that number."
Look at Manny Machado's struggles -- not just to keep his composure, but to make meaningful offensive contributions in what is essentially his sophomore season -- and you understand Hurdle's point.
"I think it's societal as much as anything," Hurdle added. "Kids are doing so much other stuff, so when you find a kid who likes baseball and is pretty good at it, there's almost like an HOV lane. I think we're all trying to be responsible, because nobody wants to bring a kid up too early. That's the hardest call. The kid gets scarred and you lose your toe-hold, and now he's got to go back for another year so he can gain some confidence."
With all that said, Pittsburgh does have confidence that Polanco has some instantly translatable skills. In his Tuesday debut, when he lined a single to the opposite field to set up McCutchen's two-run homer, the Pirates saw it as the first of many. And it can't hurt that McCutchen plays beside Polanco and suits up three lockers to his right.
"He works hard and always does the right things," Polanco said of McCutchen.
Polanco has earned a reputation for doing the right things and saying the right things, even as the wait for his callup became a subject of national discourse. We're an impatient society, and that impatience will undoubtedly extend to the evaluations of Polanco's performance. But he deserves a little breathing room.
"It seems like he's not done growing, for some strange reason," McCutchen said. "He has a really big frame, but he looks like a little kid when you see him up close."
Pirates fans have what they wanted now: The Dream Outfield, up close and personal. It's a developing picture, but one that will be fun to watch.