Why Gregory Polanco Is Hyped as MLB's Next Great 5-Tool Phenom

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Why Gregory Polanco Is Hyped as MLB's Next Great 5-Tool Phenom
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

The Pittsburgh Pirates already have two homegrown talents in their outfield in Starling Marte and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen.

Now here comes a third. At long last, the Pirates are calling super-prospect Gregory Polanco to The Show.

The news was first reported by Polanco himself, who sent the word out via Twitter:

The Pirates—who likely would have made this move sooner had it not been for the Super Two deadlinewould confirm Polanco's call-up, with the corresponding transaction being second baseman Neil Walker going on the disabled list after undergoing an appendectomy.

For a while there, it actually didn't look like the Pirates had anything special after signing Polanco out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. He struggled at the low levels of the minors between 2009 and 2011, failing to make the grade as a top prospect in Baseball America's eyes.

Everything changed when Polanco broke out with a .325 average and a .910 OPS at Single-A in 2012. That put him on the map, and he kept himself there with a quality season across three levels in 2013.

Thus did the 22-year-old enter 2014 generally regarded as one of baseball's elite prospects:

Gregory Polanco's 2014 Preseason Prospect Rankings
Bleacher Report Baseball America Baseball Prospectus MLB.com ESPN
16 10 24 12 13

Assorted

So what is it, exactly, that the prospect hounds love so much about Polanco?

Oh, you know. He's just one of those guys who can pretty much do it all.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The first thing you're liable to notice about Polanco these days is his bat. Such is life when you've been putting up the numbers he's been putting up.

Here's what Polanco had been doing at Triple-A Indianapolis before his call-up:

Gregory Polanco's 2014 Season at Triple-A
PA HR SB AVG OBP SLUG OPS
274 7 15 .347 .405 .540 .945

Baseball-Reference.com, current through 6/8/2014

These numbers reek of consistent hard contact, which would indeed fit with the book on Polanco's swing.

The experts agree that Polanco has quick hands that allow him to generate a ton of bat speed. The scouting report on MLB.com mentions these things. So does the scouting report (subscription required) at Baseball America, which characterizes Polanco's bat speed as "exceptional."

You can get a good look at Polanco's bat speed on this double he hit off Philadelphia Phillies right-hander A.J. Burnett in spring training:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Look how deep into the hitting zone Polanco let that pitch travel before unleashing his swing and smacking it into the gap in left-center field. That's killer bat speed in motion, and 'tis a sight to see.

Now, even despite the bat speed, a common complaint about Polanco's swing coming into 2014 was that it could get long. Baseball America noted how some scouts were worried this tendency might get in the way of his power potential.

Then again, maybe not. Polanco showed off a long, loopy swing on this pitch from New York Yankees right-hander David Phelps, and that didn't stop him from golfing the ball out of the yard:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That pitch actually seemed to catch Polanco by surprise, getting him just a little off balance on his front foot. It was also a breaking ball, meaning the pitcher wasn't supplying much power.

It didn't matter. Polanco still hit it out. That's big-boy strength.

Any concerns over Polanco's power potential may be dated at this point anyway. In going from slugging .407 at Double-A in 2013 to slugging .540 (.194 isolated power, per FanGraphs) at Triple-A this year, it would seem the coast is clear to trust more optimistic projections for his power.

B/R's Mike Rosenbaum offered such a projection, writing that Polanco has "enough raw power to hit 15-plus home runs" annually. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) was even more favorable, writing Polanco's "power potential is easy plus."

Polanco does have his flaws, mind you. Baseball America opined that his 6'4" frame likely dooms him to always having holes in his swing, and he's been known to chase after breaking balls. And while he teased otherworldly plate discipline and contact abilities at Double-A with a 12.6 walk rate and 12.6 strikeout rate (via FanGraphs), those numbers dipped to 8.8 and 16.1 at Triple-A this year.

Still, those numbers aren't quite red-alarm-worthy, nor did they stop Polanco from putting up monster numbers. And as long as he has his killer bat speed and budding power, the Pirates aren't wrong to believe he's ready for big league pitching.

Not that good hitting is all Pittsburgh stands to get from Polanco, of course. He has other talents as well, ones that should make him an asset in the field and on the bases.

USA TODAY Sports

I'll leave it to Baseball America to gush about Polanco's other tools and how they'll come in handy:

Polanco's long, gliding strides enable him to cover tons of ground, especially laterally, as he can track down flyballs from gap to gap, and his plus arm would allow him to play right field. His route-running, especially on balls over his head, needs polish but should improve with experience. His above-average speed also makes him a threat on the bases, and he continues to hone his baserunning instincts.

Polanco had been putting his speed to use in center field before 2014 but has played exclusively in right field this season. With Marte in left and McCutchen in center, that's where the Pirates have a fit for him.

And it's probably where he fits best anyway. Beyond Polanco having the arm for right, his unpolished route running will be less of an issue in right than in center. With less ground to cover, it should be easier for him to use his speed to hide any poor routes he might take.

That Polanco should be able to cut it in right field ought to sound good to a Pirates club that, per FanGraphs, has gotten the National League's worst UZR out of its right fielders in 2014. With Polanco joining Marte in left and McCutchen in center, Pittsburgh's outfield should become where fly balls go to die.

As for Polanco's speed on the basepaths, ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) praised him as a "70-grade runner out of the box." And after stealing 40 bases in 2012 and 38 in '13, he was already up to 15 this year. That Polanco got caught five times says his instincts need work, but the speed is there.

"This kid loves to run," Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor told Sports Illustrated's Albert Chen. "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."

In the short term, Polanco should upgrade a position that hasn't done the Pirates much good in 2014. Per FanGraphs, Pittsburgh has gotten just 0.5 WAR from its right fielders. With his hitting, defense and baserunning, it won't be hard for Polanco to improve on that even if he doesn't hit his ceiling right away.

That ceiling, to put a finer point on it, is that of a .300 hitter who's going to hit for power, steal bases and be an impact fielder with both his arm and his glove.

The Pirates already have one guy like that. That they're now fixing to have two borders on being unfair.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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