Pirates rookie Polanco is latest talented prospect to hit MLB wall
Gregory Polanco was supposed to give the Pirates' offense a shot in the arm. The 22-year-old rightfielder's arrival on the major league scene was so highly anticipated that it was preceded by talk of a seven- or even ten-year contract. But while the former top prospect has enjoyed a handful of high points during his 2 1/2 months in the majors, his current 1-for-30 slump has led the Pirates to demote him to Triple-A for a brief refresher course.
Polanco came into the year ranked 10th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, and he tore up the International League in his first prolonged exposure to Triple-A, batting .347/.405/.540 with seven homers and 15 stolen bases. With the Pirates' rightfield combo of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata struggling, the hype reached a crescendo by the end of April, but the team held off until early June before recalling him. Since he had spurned those long-term offers, it's likely that Pittsburgh had one eye on the Super Two eligibility cutoff date.
Polanco started his time in the majors with a bang, reeling off an 11-game hitting streak, the longest for a player starting his major league career since 2005. He hit .365/.421/.442 during that stretch, which included five hits and a game-winning homer in just his fourth game. He's cooled off considerably since then, however, and has hit just .241/.308/.349 with six homers and 12 steals in 279 plate appearances overall, including the aforementioned 1-for-30 slump dating back to Aug. 13. That slide has coincided with a scuffling team. The Pirates are 3-8 since Polanco's latest slump started, having scored more than four runs just three times in that span. At 67-63, they're third in the National League Central, five games back, and they're fourth in the wild card race, 1 1/2 out of the second spot.
With MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen back from the disabled list, Starling Marte hitting a blazing .371/.436/.657 since returning from a late-July concussion and Snider (.268/.336/.435 with 10 homers) finally living up to his long-lost promise, the Pirates have enough outfielders on the upswing to give Polanco a break. It's a breather that's likely as much physical — including winter ball, he's played in 178 games across all levels since last October — as mental. Via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Biertempfel, Polanco is only likely to stay at Indianapolis until the end of the team's season (Sept. 1, unless they manage to make the playoffs) or until he's fulfilled his 10-day option minimum, whichever comes first.
Polanco's struggles are yet another reminder that not every touted prospect hits the ground running like Yasiel Puig. Mike Trout hit just .220/.281/.390 in his 40-game trial with the Angels in 2011, then started the next season in Triple-A. Baseball America's No. 2 prospect, Xander Bogaerts (.223/.293/.333), and teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. (.216/.288/.290) have both fallen on their faces with the Red Sox this year; the latter was sent back to Triple-A last week.
Even Polanco’s teammates have gone through similar growing pains. Pedro Alvarez hit .191/.272/.289 and was sent back to Triple-A after a solid rookie season. Snider hit .301/.338/.466 in a 20-game cup of coffee in 2008, then spent five seasons riding a rollercoaster through Triple-A, the disabled list and the majors before enjoying a modest breakout this year. Marte collected multiple hits in three of his first five major league games but slipped to .231/.274/.388 through 28 games before capping 2012 with a strong finish.
Elsewhere in the NL Central, the Reds' Billy Hamilton (43rd on BA's list this spring) hit just .251/.290/.339 through the end of May, and his overall performance outside of his 49 stolen bases (.265/.296/.382) is still nothing to write home about. The Cardinals' Kolten Wong (58th on BA's list this spring) has hit just .245/.287/.345 this year and was sent back to Triple-A in late April for an extended stint. Teammate Oscar Taveras (third on BA's list this spring) has hit just .238/.279/.314 with two homers in 183 major league PA while drawing criticism from teammates and crotchety broadcasters, some of it — but not all of it — deserved. His baserunning lapses were his own, but he didn't trade Allen Craig to open up a lineup spot.
The Cardinals briefly and conspicuously benched Taveras earlier this month. For as nonsensical as it was to make him sit and watch Shane Robinson play rightfield, — and for as little as 32 subsequent PA of data tells us — the move appears to have paid dividends. Taveras has hit .367/.406/.433 in eight starts since, having worked to shorten his swing so as to handle big league fastballs.
The Pirates have to hope that Polanco can similarly turn things around with his own brief timeout, though at least in his case, there’s been no noise about his conduct. His tepid performance doesn't mean that the prospect hounds were wrong about him or that his future isn't bright, but like every hitter, he needs to counter the adjustments that pitchers make when he succeeds. Even Trout falls into a slump now and then as opponents exploit his vulnerabilities. It's a rite of passage for every ballplayer, and in that respect, Polanco is no different.