By Eric Longenhagen
Now that the baseball season is well into June, the likely date of the Super Two cutoff has passed, and teams can now promote their perceived Major League ready talent to the bigs without fear of the player reaching arbitration a year earlier. It's a fairly common practice to wait on this date and a practice that can simultaneously be forward-thinking, financially sound, manipulative and far-sighted. But that's a discussion for another post. Right now, the Super Two date has bequeathed upon us the ascension of Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco, just as we're approaching the Dog Days of Summer.
Polanco, who many publications had ranked as the top prospect in the Pittsburgh system coming into the year, has exploded into the consciousness of the baseball-loving public this season by posting a ridiculous .347/.405/.540 line at Triple-A Indianapolis while the Pirates got next to nothing from their right-fielders (.264/.319/.357, collectively). And yet, in the International League did Polanco wait until now while the Pirates were busy falling 7.5 games back of Milwaukee in the National League Central. Polanco arrives in the Major Leagues viewed by many as a savior of sorts, the man who is supposed to help close that gap. While his talent isn't quite that outlandish (is anyone's?) there is a lot to talk about it from a scouting perspective.
The first thing that strikes one about Polanco is that, physically, he's an absolute stallion. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Polanco is as body-beautiful and well proportioned as it gets. It bodes well for his ability to retain many aspects of his skillset as he ages and puts on weight. Anecdotally at least, big-bodied players decline more precipitously than the lean, athletic ones. Polanco has a long way to go before he'd ever be considered fat while also being presently sturdy and strong. He does appear to be a likely candidate to thicken enough that he'll have to permanently move to an outfield corner. He's played there almost exclusively this season after playing a good amount of centerfield last year. His outfield defense is spectacularly unspectacular, in that he uses his plus speed to run down balls that he's taken inefficient routes to or gotten bad jumps on. You'll often hear Polanco referred to as "athletic," though I prefer "explosive". He possesses unusual speed for his size and will make some spectacular plays, but the 22-year-old doesn't yet have imperial control over his extremities and can be a bit awkward. I prefer to place the athlete label on players that are supremely coordinated, smooth and graceful. Not just big and fast. The net of Polanco's impressive straight line speed and undercooked defensive feel is an average defensive outfielder with plus arm strength.
It becomes fascinating to dissect Polanco when you get to his bat. It starts with positively electric hands that are quick enough to make up for a mechanical blemish or two in his swing. Polanco loads his hands very deep and high, which typically makes it difficult for hitters to get the bat back through the zone quick enough to hit good velocity (especially when you consider his arm length). The bat would have too great a distance to travel to get back in the hitting zone. Polanco's hand speed makes this all moot as he quickly brings the bat back into the zone where it stays for a very long time. Polanco tracks the baseball very well, has terrific eye-hand coordination and has shown the ability to manipulate the barrel of the bat toward pitches in various locations. He checks all the boxes for me when projecting a good Major League hitter, and could have multiple .300-plus AVG years ahead of him. I'd like to see Pittsburgh coaches work to iron out the inconsistencies Polanco displays with his footwork. His feet are nice and slow and quiet, but he's constantly changing the way he steps to the baseball in the box (if he does at all).
I think this could also help Polanco tap into more power, as proper incorporation of a hitter's lower half is a key aspect in hitting baseballs over fences. There are instances in which Polanco doesn't stride at all and while there's still enough strength in his wrists and enough rotation in his swing to hit balls hard, there's more pop to be found by generating forward inertia. Right now Polanco's power is going to come from ripping doubles down the line over the first baseman's head, and by using his speed to stretch out bloopers in the gap into hustle doubles. All the home runs I've seen him hit in Eastern League and International League play over the past two seasons have been on balls way up in the zone or balls down and in that he's golfed out by opening up his hips and dropping the bat head. If his feet get fixed (they can get sloppy through the swing too) and taps into some more power as a result, he'll be really, really terrifying.
Of course, you could argue that it'd be foolish to mess with something so good, and risk doing mechanical damage that might set Polanco's development back or even derail it permanently. Again, I'm not as sold on Polanco as "an athlete" as others seem to be. The players who can take instruction from coaches and video, and then go out into the batting cage and magically manifest those tweaks in their swing are rare. As talented as he is, it doesn't appear Polanco has the sort of neuromuscular control required to do that with ease. The Pirates might want not want to overplay their hand here.
There are other concerns here, as well. Polanco is a pull-heavy hitter as you can see by his spray chart from this season. It's possible some of his contact skills will be mitigated by opponents deploying infield shifts against him, which might dilute the utility of his hit tool. It's also possible that this pull-oriented tendency might be caused by a mechanical idiosyncrasy that I can't see, but that MLB Advanced Scouts can. Polanco might ultimately be forced to make adjustments as opposing pitchers figure out where to attack him the way they have Domonic Brown.
Overall, I expect Gregory Polanco to be an excellent Major League baseball player. A plus hitter with a mountain of doubles that could turn into homers if the Pirates clean some things up, and solid defense in right field that also has room to grow. If all the developmental hurdles are cleared, he'll be a star.
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Eric Longenhagen hails from Catasauqua, PA and has been working in various baseball capacities since his freshman year of college in 2007, including work in the minor leagues, at Baseball Info Solutions and most recently scouting and writing for CrashburnAlley.com and ProspectInsider.com.