Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco is baseball's Next Big Thing

Friday April 25th, 2014

In 20 games at Triple A this season, Gregory Polanco is hitting .420/.460/.679 with four home runs.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI

The Next Big Thing is almost here. Are you ready to believe? Or are you already rolling your eyes?

The Next Big Thing is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound man-child who's being compared to everyone from Andrew McCutchen to Jadeveon Clowney. His name is Gregory Polanco, and he's the X-factor in the National League Central race, the sleeper pickup in your fantasy baseball league and one of the most enthralling prospects in the game; no player in the minors right now -- not Archie Bradley, not Oscar Taveras, not Byron Buxton -- is more deserving of a ticket to The Show.

"Who does he remind me of? Barry Bonds," says Double A Altoona manager Carlos Garcia, who managed Polanco last summer. "He has that kind of power. But he does it all -- he hits for power, he hits gap to gap, he can lay down a bunt, he runs well, defensively he can cover so much ground in centerfield and rightfield." Garcia also mentored a young McCutchen, who won last year's NL MVP award, in the Pirates' system. "Not taking anything from Andrew," he says, "but when Andrew was in the minor leagues, he was nothing close to Polanco. This kid has the potential to be one of the best ever."

So, are you ready to believe? Or are you rolling your eyes?

The numbers the 22-year-old Polanco is putting up at Triple A Indianapolis would be hard to replicate on your PS4. On Thursday, Polanco hit a solo home run, a go-ahead double and an infield single, finishing a triple shy of the cycle with his 11th multi-hit game. He improved his line for the year to .420/.460/.679 and now has four home runs, five doubles and two triples in 20 games. This insane start comes after a winter in which he won both the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the Dominican Winter League. With Travis Snider and Jose Tabata struggling in the Pirates' rightfield platoon, Polanco's promotion to Pittsburgh would seem imminent, though service time issues could keep him in Indy into June.

"You still use the word raw with him because of his age," cautions Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor, who has been working with Polanco on his transition from center to rightfield. "His arm's big, but he's got to acclimate himself with the angles.

"This kid loves to run," Treanor continues. "His strides are so big, it's like he takes two steps and he's gone from second to home. He's like a young colt on the bases. But the small things, he needs to work on -- his leads, when to be aggressive. But he's progressing, because this kid is willing to do everything to get better."

Five years ago, Polanco was a teenager in the Dominican who was spindly and somewhat awkward. "He looked like a sick giraffe," says Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting.

At the Club Payero complex in Santo Domingo, Polanco was being sold to major league teams by his buscone as a lefthanded pitcher. There was a problem: This particular southpaw had no heat on his fastball, no secondary pitches and absolutely no interest in pitching. Still, the buscone's asking price for the boy was $150,000. The best offer on the table was $70,000. The buscone refused to lower his price.

One afternoon Gayo happened to see Polanco in the outfield when his team had a shortage of players. He liked how Polanco played the position so effortlessly, with such joy, and he loved the boy's short swing and quiet approach at the plate. So uncomfortable on the mound, the boy was a natural in the outfield.

"Hey man, you're a pretty good outfielder," Gayo said to Polanco after one practice.

"That's what I am -- but they've got me pitching. I don't like pitching," said Polanco.

Gayo told the buscone that he'd give him his $150,000 -- but only if Polanco would be an outfielder. "Do whatever you want with him," the buscone said.

The Pirates' use of analytics has been a large part of the narrative in Pittsburgh, and yes, the organization has done a brilliant job using data analysis in its decision-making. But old-school scouting has also played a role in the team's success, particularly creative international scouting -- and we're not just talking about the Disney movie stuff. One day seven years ago, Gayo saw a raw shortstop on the fields of Santo Domingo and imagined that he could be an outfielder. He signed Starling Marte for $80,000. Marte is now Pittsburgh's starting leftfielder. One day Gayo saw a sick giraffe trying to throw baseballs off the mound and imagined he could be a star outfielder. Polanco looks on his way to becoming just that.

"The only thing he's doing right now that surprises me is the way he runs," Gayo says. "I would never have thought he'd run like that. He was so big, you thought he would run the 60 in 7.4. Which would be fine. But the way he runs now is like Marte. It's like [projected top NFL draft pick Jadeveon] Clowney. To run the way he does at his size, that's insane."

Polanco grades as a 70 runner on scouts' traditional 20-80 scale for evaluating a prospect's abilities, and he will make an immediate impact in the Pittsburgh outfield with his plus-plus defense. But now that he's shortened up his swing -- and done so without giving away any power -- he also looks like he's ready to be an impact bat in a struggling lineup. The Pirates were 9-14 entering play on Friday, already 7½ games behind the first-place Brewers. While it's too early for panic, it's hard to ignore the struggles of the offense, which ranks 26th in the majors in batting average (.229), 25th in OBP (.301), 21st in slugging (.370) and 22nd in OPS (.671).

Last year McCutchen had his MVP season and Marte broke out with an impressive campaign in his first full year. Now here is Polanco, the final piece in what could be, in a few years, the best and most dynamic outfield the game. It's easy for Pittsburgh to dream about what an outfield of McCutchen, Marte and Polanco would look like at PNC Park for years to come. As for 2014, the Pirates want an NL Central title and another trip to the postseason, and the giraffe with the magical swing can help get them there.

But it is impossible to know exactly what kind of player Polanco will be in the majors, of course. A few years ago, Eric Hosmer looked like he was headed toward All-Star games and MVP awards. Mike Trout was better than we all imagined. In any case, the Next Big Thing is almost here.

Are you rolling your eyes? Or are you ready to believe?

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