For those who have felt forced to wear your sunglasses at night, breaking UV news: It’s now safe to actually look at the Houston Astros as they play baseball without fear of severely damaging your retinas.
George Springer and Jon Singleton are the best things to come along since Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio...or, at least, since the mothballing of those funky 1970s rainbow uniforms (which, like the recent batch of abominable baseball in Houston, also caused lots of folks to break out their shades).
Then, just as the Springer Show got rolling with an astonishing seven homers in seven games, the Cardinals summoned Oscar Taveras from Triple-A Memphis on May 30 and, KA-BOOM! Taveras homered in his second big-league at-bat against the Giants’ Yusmeiro Petit.
Now, in Pittsburgh, here comes phenom Gregory Polanco, who might just wind up being the best of them all. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your barroom debates.
Kids. They sure do grow up fast these days.
Suddenly, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper seem, what? 30?
“Special talent,” one scout gushes about Springer.
“I saw Polanco a couple of years ago in West Virginia,” another scout says. “He was impressive. He can do it all. The Darryl Strawberry comparison is the easy comparison because of the length of his body.
“He can run, hit, hit with power and he can handle left-handed pitching.”
This week, the Pirates were almost giddy with anticipation as the rumors of Polanco’s imminent arrival swirled into hurricane force winds.
“Tremendous athlete,” Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole says, spring training memories dancing in his head. Such a sweet swing.”
“I can’t wait for him to be here so we can play together,” Pirates left fielder Starling Marte says.
An outfield of Marte in left, National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right might help keep the Pirates in contention for years.
The Strawberry comparisons will be inevitable given Polanco’s build (6-5, 230), left-handed swing and graceful athleticism. At this point, one of the most intriguing questions in the game involves the upside of the latest new wave of kids—starting with the newest minor-league call-up as he approaches his first big league game.
“Time will tell,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told Bleacher Report. “But he has all the skills of the elite players who are coming into the game right now. Yasiel Puig, we just saw him and he was the most locked-in hitter at the plate I’ve seen this year. Polanco, he’s got arm strength, he can play right field, he can hit in multiple spots in the lineup.”
In one of their final moves to tune up Polanco for the majors, the Pirates last weekend shifted him into the leadoff spot at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he was hitting .351 with six homers, 47 RBIs, a .956 OPS and 14 steals.
“The walk comes into play in his at-bat sometimes,” Hurdle says. “He has the mentality. He has tremendous strike-zone discipline. It’s barrel to ball, it’s gap power that will play. He takes the fastball the opposite way, lets the slow stuff pick up his barrel.”
One of the areas Polanco, whom the Pirates signed as an international free agent in 2009, has improved the most lately is in improving his break toward second on theft attempts. It wasn’t long ago that his reads while leading off at first were inconsistent, and he usually simply wound up out-running the ball on his way to second.
Wheels are no small part of his game despite his size—which is where the Strawberry comparisons come in, too.
“There will be infield hits,” Hurdle says. “He has the skill set that you think he can stay out of a slump.”
Which always is one thing clubs consider when making the big decisions with elite prospects. If things don’t go well for a stretch—when things don’t go well, because valleys come with the peaks for everyone—how will he handle it?
The Cardinals long have maintained that they were not going to bring up Taveras, 21, until he was ready and they had a spot for him to play. They were not going to park him on their bench. Baseball is timing. And with inconsistent playing time, that timing can disappear more quickly than last night’s dinner.
With first baseman Matt Adams landing on the disabled list with a calf strain and a stretch of seven games with the DH available in American League parks (Kansas City, Toronto and Tampa Bay), the time for Taveras, signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2008, is now.
There is a real chance that both Taveras and Polanco can have an effect on the developing NL Central race as the Cardinals and Pirates try and chase down the Brewers.
As for Springer, Houston’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft (No. 11 overall), it long ago became Wait ‘til Next Year for the Astros. But this kid, just 24, is bringing next year closer one at-bat at a time.
“Five-tool player,” one scout says. “He’s playing right field now, but he can handle center field. The only thing he’s got to watch, at times, is being overaggressive. He’s got power to all fields.
“He’s going to be an All-Star for a lot of years.”
Another month like he just completed in May, Springer could pull another Trout and Harper and become an All-Star two months into his big-league career. He led all American League rookies in May in home runs (10), RBI (25), runs scored (22) and slugging percentage (.647).
Furthermore, he became only the second rookie in history to hit seven homers over a seven game stretch, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, joining the Tigers’ Rudy York (August, 1937).
Yet it was Singleton’s recall that elicited this reaction from Astros manager Bo Porter: “Christmas in June.”
Houston’s beancounters surely felt similar tidings of joy when Singleton, acquired from the Phillies in the 2011 Hunter Pence deal, agreed to a controversial major-league deal worth $10 million guaranteed over five years before he even racked up his first big league at-bat (if mutual options kick in, the deal could be worth $30 million).
Springer and Polanco rejected similar offers that could wind up as the game’s next financial frontier if clubs are feeling lucky with certain young prospects, though the players’ union, predictably, is working to quash the idea.
Whatever the finances, it may take the greenbacks awhile to catch up to the greenhorns.
In St. Louis, Busch Stadium fans demanded a curtain call just two at-bats into Taveras’ career, following the home run against the Giants.
In Houston, you again can look straight at the Astros (but, still, not directly into the sun. Don’t get mixed up here).
And in Pittsburgh, it’s hello to Polanco as another curtain raises.
“He’s got speed,” Marte says. “He’s got talent.
“He’s got everything.”
And as baseball’s next wave of young guns gets settled, just one last thing: That crack above about Harper and Trout suddenly seeming like they’re 30? Of Springer, Singleton, Polanco, Taveras and Trout, Harper still remains the youngest of all at 21 (he turns 22 on Oct. 16).
Trout, at 22 (23 on Aug. 7), is only roughly a month older than Singleton (23 on Sept. 18) and Polanco (23 on Sept. 14).
We’re going to be watching all of these guys for a good long time. And, good for us.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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