Smile, Gregory! You're headed to the Big Leagues! (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
After two-plus months of waiting, speculation and debate, the most-hyped prospect in the minor leagues is headed to the majors. The Pirates' Gregory Polanco tweeted out on Monday night that he was being called up to Pittsburgh from Triple-A, a move confirmed (and retweeted) by the team's official Twitter account.
The move was made possible after the Pirates put Neil Walker on the disabled list due to an appendectomy, but Polanco's arrival in the big leagues has been a long time coming. The 22-year-old outfielder had been tearing up Triple-A in his two months there, slashing an impressive .347/.405/.540 in 274 plate appearances. That included seven homers, 49 RBI, 15 steals in 20 attempts and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 44/24. Although Polanco had slowed down a bit since a sterling April that saw him hit .400/.457/.632 — his OPS was .861 in May and .841 through eight games in June — there was little question that he had solved Triple-A pitching.
Indeed, the only question surrounding Polanco was when the Pirates would finally give him his shot in MLB. Ranked by Baseball America as the No. 10 prospect in the game, Polanco's hot start came as both Pittsburgh and the team's rightfielders stumbled out of the gate. Jose Tabata slashed just .262/.318/.295 over the season's first month; his platoon mate, the left-handed Travis Snider, put together an equally uninspiring .227/.301/.364 line over that same time frame. Tabata and Snider eventually lost playing time to Josh Harrison, and the 26-year-old has responded with a respectable .817 OPS so far. But prior to this season, his career OPS stood at a more modest .648, suggesting that some regression is likely.
Of course, the biggest factor in Polanco's continued stay in the minors is money — specifically, the cash that he'll be earning in his future seasons as a Pirate. Before the season, Pittsburgh offered Polanco a seven-year, $25 million deal, looking to lock him up at what would constitute a bargain rate if his minor league production translated to the majors. Polanco declined, following the path of fellow top prospect George Springer, who was offered a similar contract and told Houston no. Pittsburgh hoped that the combination of instant financial security and the subsequent call-up to the majors would convince Polanco to trade away potential future earnings. Instead, he refused, leading to his extended stay in Triple-A as the Pirates tried to keep him from qualifying for Super Two arbitration status.
That upcoming Super Two arbitration deadline — which is only determined after the fact and is not a set date — usually falls in early- to mid-June, which makes Polanco's promotion at this point far from a coincidence. Last week, there were rumors and reports that Polanco was to be called up at the start of the Pirates' last homestand; that ultimately proved premature, but the expectation all along was that Pittsburgh would bring him up sometime in June. Already, two other teams had called up top prospects, with Houston recalling Jon Singleton and Colorado bringing up Eddie Butler. Singleton, however, came up after taking the kind of deal that Polanco and Springer had turned down, leaving the Astros free to bring him to Houston without worrying about Super Two eligibility.
With Polanco now headed to the majors, the question now turns as to whether he'll be able to outproduce what the Pirates have been getting from the trio of Harrison, Snider and Tabata. As noted before, Harrison has produced as a starter, and Tabata has bounced back somewhat, posting a .684 OPS in May and hitting a robust .417 in June, albeit in just five games (and now primarily as the backup leftfielder behind Starling Marte). Snider, however, has failed to produce as the left-handed half of the equation and has lost playing time as a result. In that sense, Polanco's call-up will likely make Snider expendable, as both are left-handed; on top of that, Polanco's OPS versus right-handers is 150 points higher this season than against lefties and was nearly 200 points better in 2013. It's also likely that Walker's injury will force Harrison to second base, opening up playing time in right for Polanco.
But will the addition of Polanco will be enough to lift the Pirates? Despite the struggles of Tabata, Snider et al. in right, that hasn't been that huge a problem for Pittsburgh, with the team just 0.4 runs below average at the position so far this season. First base and shortstop have both been bigger issues in the Steel City, not to mention a rotation that has an ERA of 4.34, the worst mark in the NL Central. Polanco's high OBP bat, however, makes him an ideal choice for the second spot in the order that will be vacated by Walker's absence. On top of that, he should combine with McCutchen and Marte to give the Pirates arguably the best and most athletic defensive outfield in the league.
Of course, Polanco's ultimate value will depend on how much run he's given by manager Clint Hurdle. There's been no word from the team yet on any plans or limitations on playing time. But it's fair to assume that, given all the hype and all the results in the minors, and given Pittsburgh's precarious position with regards to playoff contention — 7 1/2 games back in the Central, three back of the second wild-card spot after Monday night — the Pirates are going to give Polanco every opportunity to make an impact.