By John Perrotto
Gregory Polanco flashed his 100-kilowatt smile at the questioner and laughed. The 22-year-old is too young, too carefree and far too talented to wonder about what might have been.
What if Pirates international scouting director Rene Gayo had seen a pitcher like the rest of the major league teams who were interested in Polanco as a teenager in his Dominican Republic, rather than a potential five-tool outfielder? What if Polanco had lost his confidence while being overmatched by pitchers for most of two seasons in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and decided to pack up and make Bradenton, Fla., nothing more than a bad memory?
"I always believe it would happen this way," the Pirates right fielder said. "I always had confidence that I would get to the big leagues. It was my dream and I knew it was going to come true. I always had faith in my dream."
Now Polanco is the latest phenom to reach the major leagues.
The Pirates called the 22-year-old up from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 10, and all he's done is proceed to put up a .338/.416/.441 line in his first 16 games, through Thursday. In the process, he became the first Pirate rookie ever to hit safely in each of his first 11 games. In just his fourth game in the major leagues, Polanco led the Pirates to an 8-6 victory over the Marlins in Miami, getting five hits, the last being a game-winning two-run home run --- the first of his career --- in the 13th inning.
It is fitting that Polanco talks about never giving up on his dream because scouts have a saying about players who possess plenty of raw talent but are in need of refining their game. They are called "guys you can dream on."
Gayo was dreaming big when he first spotted Polanco in the Dominican capital city of Santo Domingo in the spring of 2009. Polanco was 17 and pitched in addition to playing the outfield under the tutelage of buscon (a talent broker who negotiates on behalf of international free agents) Christian Batista. Batista was trying to market Polanco as a pitcher because of his 6-foot-4 frame and strong arm and had an asking price of $150,000. No team had offered more than $70,000 when Gayo agreed to match Batista's price --- under the condition that Polanco would be used as an outfielder as a professional while pitching would only be a potential fallback option if he failed as a position player.
"There's a fine line between projection and insanity," Gayo said. "But I thought once this guy gets man strength, he's going to be a special animal. He jumped out at me. He played with great enthusiasm. He played great all the time. He didn't have much power, but he was a great gap hitter. Lots of doubles and triples."
Which is why the Pirates struck with Polanco even after two poor seasons in rookie ball. After making his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2009, Polanco came to the Gulf Coast League the following summer and hit .202 with three home runs in 53 games along with a .245 on-base percentage and a .287 slugging percentage. He returned to the GCL the following season and got marginally better with a slash line of .237/.333/.361 with three home runs in 48 games.
"It was tough sometimes," Polanco said. "I wasn't hitting. I tried not to get frustrated but it was tough. I just kept believing things would get better if I kept working hard."
Polanco's faith was rewarded in 2012 when he was moved to a full season league and seemingly out of nowhere won the Player of the Year Award in the low Single-A South Atlantic League. Playing for West Virginia, he batted .325 with 16 home runs, 85 RBIs, 40 stolen bases, a .388 on-base percentage and .522 slugging percentage. In the span of 116 games, Polanco went from looking like a waste of money to one of the top 50 prospects in baseball.
While many minor-leaguers wilt when they get their first taste of a five-month season, Polanco found the everyday grind to his liking.
"I got a chance to play more, had the chance to get more at-bats and really start to understand what the pitchers were trying to do and how to prepare myself each day," Polanco said. "It was a great experience."
Polanco was on the fast track to the major leagues from there, even in an organization that likes to methodically move its prospects. He spent time at the top three levels of the farm system last season, playing for high Single-A Bradenton, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. Polanco went back to Indy this season and tore the International League apart for 62 games as he led the league in batting (.347), RBIs (49) and total bases (134) while also hitting seven home runs, stealing 15 bases and posting a .405 on-base percentage and a .540 slugging percentage.
The Pirates took plenty of external heat from fans and the media, especially with right fielders Travis Snider and Jose Tabata struggling, for not bringing up Polanco earlier in the season to help an ailing offense. Ownership was criticized for preferring to retain Polanco's rights for a full season down the road rather than playing him immediately this year and putting the best team on the field. However, after having played in only two Triple-A games in 2013, Gayo believes the extended stint there this year is why Polanco has been able to excel in the major leagues.
"The way they pitch you in the major leagues, they don't pitch you that way anywhere else in the world," Gayo said. "They're going to pitch you backwards. I think the fact that they've allowed Gregory to experience that (in the minors) speaks volumes. It's a lot better to taste that for the first time in the minor leagues than to have to get to Pittsburgh and to have to learn that where probably every time you come up at-bat at the beginning, you're going to be getting a standing ovation or something. That's a lot to deal with."
Polanco got a rousing ovation from the PNC Park crowd of 31,367 before his first career plate appearance against the Chicago Cubs' Travis Wood. That came a little more than four hours after he was introduced to the media in a pre-game press conference. Somewhat surprisingly, but rather refreshingly, Polanco was caught off guard by all the hoopla surrounding his arrival in the major leagues.
"I didn't think it was going to be such a big deal," Polanco said. "I was really surprised by the ovation. It was really nice but it made me a little nervous, too."
Polanco looks like the type of player who will make opposing teams nervous for years to come. The Pirates have to tried to put a lid on the hype as much as they can, especially manager Clint Hurdle, who never lived up to his billing as one of the top prospects in baseball while coming through the Kansas City Royals' organization in the late 1970s.
"He's a very talented player and we feel he's going to be a big part of our future," Hurdle said. "I don't think it's too wise to get ahead of ourselves, though. Let's just wait and see how things play out."
However, even Hurdle had to smile after saying that.
"He's got an awful lot of talent," the manager said. "It's pretty easy to get excited about him."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.