Top Outfield Prospect Gregory Polanco Poised to Become NL Central X-Factor

Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterApril 14, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco warms up during the team's baseball spring training workout in Bradenton, Fla., Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar

Gregory Polanco proved during spring training that he’s nearly ready for an audition in the major leagues, as the 22-year-old posted an .804 OPS with three extra-base hits while appearing in 10 games.

And with his red-hot start this season at Triple-A Indianapolis, it’s only a matter of time until the toolsy outfielder gets the call.

Polanco seemingly emerged from nowhere to turn in one of the top breakout performances of the 2012 season. Playing in 116 games for Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, Polanco batted an impressive .325/.388/.522 with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in 485 plate appearances.

He followed the eye-opening full-season debut with an even better showing in 2013, as the toolsy outfielder excelled at three levels and finished the year in Triple-A. Between all stops, Polanco batted .285/.356/.434 with 26 doubles, 16 home runs, 85 RBI and 40 stolen bases in 485 plate appearances.

Gregory Polanco Career Statistics (Full-Season Levels Only)
2012 (Low-A)485.325169.1%13.2%40.410
2013 (High-A)241.31266.6%15.4%24.383
2013 (Double-A)286.263612.6%12.6%13.347
2013 (Triple-A)9.222---1.204
2014 (Triple-A)41.50024.9%7.3%1.582

A left-handed hitter, Polanco has a mature approach and gets excellent plate coverage thanks to his lanky build and long arms. His swing will get lengthy on occasion, and it can impede his ability to handle velocity—both on the hands and up in the zone—but that’s really only a minor gripe at this stage in his promising career. Overall, Polanco projects as an above-average hitter in the major leagues with enough raw power to hit 15-plus home runs annually.

Defensively, Polanco’s plus speed—which should also produce numerous seasons with 20-plus stolen bases—translates to excellent range in the outfield, and it’s allowed him to spend a majority of his minor league career in center field. However, because he also possesses enough arm strength for right field, Polanco is a cleaner fit at the position compared to Starling Marte or Andrew McCutchen.

Last season, Pittsburgh’s right fielders combined to bat .242/.299/.385 with 16 home runs, 62 RBI and 144 strikeouts in 675 plate appearances, and their collective 0.8 fWAR was third worst among all National League teams, ranking ahead of only the Cubs (0.6) and Phillies (-2.9).

The lack of production and consistency from the position last year also made a significant impact on the team’s overall success on offense. Specifically, the Pirates’ 634 runs scored on the season ranked ninth in the NL and was worse than three of the other four teams in the Central Division: Milwaukee (640 runs scored), Cincinnati (698) and St. Louis (783).

After trading Marlon Byrd late last season, the Pirates are using a right-field tandem of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider this year, with Tabata starting against left-handed pitching and Snider against righties.

While Polanco represents an obvious upgrade over Snider—who owns a .641 OPS in 471 plate appearances over parts of three seasons with the Pirates—from the left side of the plate, the organization’s decision about what to do with Tabata won’t be as straight forward.

Prior to the 2011 season, Pittsburgh signed Tabata, 25, to a six-year, $15 million extension through 2016, with team options for the 2017-19 seasons. To make matters more complicated, Tabata is coming off arguably the best performance of his career in 2013, when he batted .282/.342/.429 with 28 extra-base hits in 341 plate appearances.

Gregory Polanco Career Stats vs. Left-Handed Pitching

As you can see in the above table, Polanco has a steady track record against left-handed pitching in the minor leagues, but he’s yet to demonstrate any form of mastery. However, once Polanco proves he can handle same-side pitching at the major league level, expect him to gradually assume a near-everyday role with the club. And when that happens, the Pirates will likely explore trading Tabata, who could draw interest from several clubs given his relatively team-friendly contract and age.

Polanco’s tools and feel for the game are both impressive for a player of his age and experience, but he’s still rough around the edges and has room to improve in all facets of the game. Yet, the potential is there for a first-division standout at maturity, and it shouldn’t be long, possibly as early as June, until he joins Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to form the most exciting outfield in baseball.