It took Gregory Polanco 89 games and less than 300 at-bats last summer to come to a stark realization: He had never faced anything like major-league pitching.
Pitchers at the big-league level have better location than their minor-league counterparts and are way better at finding a hitter’s weakness and exploiting it.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco rounds second during the first inning of an intrasquad spring training baseball game in Bradenton, Monday, March 2, 2015. The Associated Press
They found lots to pick apart last season in Polanco, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ highly touted prospect who made his much-anticipated debut last June. Polanco found success early, hitting .289 in his first 19 games before hitting .213 in over his next 70. The left-handed swinging Polanco slugged just .244 against lefties in 82 at-bats. That prompted a trip back down to Triple-A Indianapolis while Travis Snider took over in right field during the Pirates’ push toward the playoffs.
Polanco is part of the Pirates’ plans this season. He is expected to break camp with the team and join leftfielder Starling Marte and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen in what many feel has the potential to be the best outfield in baseball.
Signed in 2009 as an amateur free agent, the 22-year-old native of the Dominican Republic zipped through the minor leagues, hitting .285 in 479 games, including 57 with high Single-A Bradenton in 2013. He opened last season ranked as the game’s 10th-best prospect by Baseball America. He drew comparisons to a young Daryl Strawberry, albeit one with a better glove.
Yet all the accolades and praise couldn’t do what 89 games did for him last year: School him on life as a big-leaguer. He even got to feel the heat of a playoff race when he was recalled in September following a two-week return to Indianapolis.
“A lot of great experiences for him to build upon,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “And it’s one of the first times that he came up that the game challenged him.”
Though Polanco struggled during his second stay in the minors, going 4-for-26, he said the demotion didn’t get to him, especially since the Pirates told him he’d be back after getting some at-bats.
“Nobody likes being sent down,” Polanco said, “but it didn’t bother me because I knew I was going to come back again.”
Hurdle likens a player’s big-league adjustment to a boxing match. The player may land the first couple of jabs, but he also has to be prepared for when the league punches back. In the eyes of Hurdle, himself a top prospect when the Kansas City Royals made him the ninth overall pick in 1975, Polanco did well at absorbing the blows.
“Everybody that plays is going to run through challenges. Adversity is going to show up for everybody that plays,” Hurdle said. “How do you handle it? I thought he handled it well. I thought he learned from the opportunities that were presented to him.”
The 6-foot-5 Polanco reported to Bradenton with an additional 12 pounds of muscle, a result of what Hurdle called “a very smart strength and conditioning program,” though Hurdle doesn’t think it will take away any of the agility that helped Polanco steal 143 bases in the minors and 14 last season as a big-leaguer.
He is expected to flash some of that speed when the Pirates open the regular season April 6 at Cincinnati, though Polanco said he isn’t treating this spring any different even though he is all but assured a roster spot for the first time in his career.
“Every day, I come here to fight and prepare and work hard every day to be the rightfielder,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m guaranteed (a spot), but that’s my goal. I always come to win a job to play every day because that’s what I want.”
What the Pirates want is to get a season-long look at how fun it could be watching Marte, McCutchen and Polanco roaming the same outfield. Polanco said he is ready to do his part, more prepared following last year’s call-up.