When the Pirates signed Gregory Polanco in 2009, they weren't sure what exactly they had. The 17 year old from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic claimed a $75K bonus, and was selected because he looked like a ballplayer - at 6' 4", 170 lb., he was tall, lanky, and athletic with plus speed and a good arm, with the added advantage of being a lefty. The teen had the textbook body type, and the scouts hoped his hitting would follow as he filled out.
He spent the 2009 campaign in the DSL, where he hit .267 with a .370 OBP as a right fielder. Polanco showed little power, with a 19% K and 13% walk rate. Nothing was out of line considering his age, and he was moved along to the GCL in 2010 after some time at the Academy (which is the home of the DSL/DWL Pirates).
The Dominican began at the bottom of the rung in Bradenton. He hit just .202, again showing little power. His peripherals took a beating: his K rate rose to 21% and his walk rate dropped to 5%. One bright spot was his base stealing - he swiped 19-of-21 bases, fourth in the league. Polanco also got a taste of center field, his natural spot, though he mostly played right again.
Repeating in the GCL in 2011, the light began to come on, although his stats didn't jump out at all. He hit .237 with little power, but his OBP jumped from .245 in 2010 to .333 in 2011. Polanco's K rate was more manageable at 16% and his walk rate was back in double figures at 12%. He was a perfect 18-for-18 in steals, and was moving into a more premium spot at center, splitting time with Willy Garcia, a highly touted product from Polanco's hometown who signed in 2010 for $280K. Polanco responded to the challenge well, throwing out eight baserunners.
He got a cup of coffee at State College, playing three games for the Spikes. Polanco then skipped a level and was moved to Low A West Virginia in the Sally League for 2012, as his improved eye and continued strong play in the pasture indicated to the Bucs that he was ready for full-season baseball. They were right.
Polanco blew up for the Power. He put together a slash of .325/.388/.522, and got stronger as the year went on. The 20 year old was now 6'5" and up to maybe 210 lbs, and he banged 26 doubles and 16 homers with his new found bulk - and he still has room to grow. The plate recognition continued, too. Polanco worked deep counts, and his K rate was 13% with a walk rate of 9%, so he wasn't trading plate discipline to swing for the fences. The youngster stole 40 sacks in 55 tries, a 73% success rate. And he became the full-time center fielder.
His breakout year earned him a cabinet full of hardware. He was named to the Sally League's mid and post season All-Star teams, the SAL's Outstanding MLB Prospect, Topp's Sally League Player of the Year, and Baseball America rated him as the league's #3 prospect. The Pirates selected Polanco as their 2012 Minor League Player of the Year. Not too bad a year for a guy who was unranked among Pirate prospects entering the season; you can bet he's in everyone's Bucco Top Ten now.
His only bummer was an ankle injury in early August that caused him to miss three weeks of the season. There were reports that he reinjured it during the Bucs' military training drills, but if he did, it wasn't of any major consequence. He's now playing winter ball for Leones del Escogido in the DWL with teammates Starling Marte and Altoona pitcher Kris Johnson.
Polanco will likely open 2013 with High Class A Bradenton at age 21, which puts him on track if all goes well to arrive in Pittsburgh sometime in 2015. And even with his toolkit, he's a raw product and still has a fairly extensive punchlist before he's ready for the show.
His swing needs some work; it's a little on the long side, mostly due to his size and long arms. Polanco does have quick hands, so shortening the swing shouldn't be a major issue; he's already worked on it at WV. Ditto with his fielding. Polanco is already an above average fielder, but like many athletic guys, his speed makes up for read and route mistakes, and more experience should bring more efficiency to his jumps.
Base running and stealing are also on his "to-do" list. He's a little slow out of the box, though his long strides make up for that in a hurry. The stride is what he needs to work on; it sometimes makes him choppy on the basepaths getting to a sack and making a turn. That's probably nit-picking, but after watching the big team run the bases, it would be nice to see a polished product off to the races in Pittsburgh.
Polanco is going to be a different sort of player when he arrives at PNC Park; he'll probably have matured enough physically to be a corner, rather than center, fielder. But with that should also be increased power. It could be that the Pirates finally have their right fielder, even if he's a couple or three years away.