Gregory Polanco, 22, was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $150,000 as a lanky, athletic outfielder who featured physical tools but was still a project. He went through some ups and downs until 2012, when he had his breakout season.
His line at Class A West Virginia that season was .325/.388/.522 with 16 homers and 40 stolen bases, and that got him on the radar. In 2013, he took advantage, rising through three minor league levels to end up at Indy.
Going into that 2013 season, Polanco was ranked as the 50th best prospect in baseball by Minor League Ball (John Sickels), #51 by Baseball America, and #65 by MLB.com. In mid season, Baseball Prospectus jumped Polanco to #12 from a pre-season rank of #44 while he went from #51 to #22 in ESPN's (Keith Law) ratings. He received a bit more recognition when he represented the Pirates at the 2013 All-Star Futures Game.
Polanca started last season at High A Bradenton and by June he was promoted to Altoona. Class AA is the big step in a prospect's career, and after a slow start, Polanco settled in, hitting .263 with a .354 OBP. More importantly, he wasn't overmatched. He walked the same number of times as he K'ed - 36, 12.6% - and showed the plate discipline that's often missing in Latino prospects' games. Polanco got a cup-of-coffee stop at Indy in late August.
He'll start 2014 at Indy - he only got nine AB there last year, with a couple of singles - and the combination of Jose Tabata's (or whomever's) right field performance in Pittsburgh and the lefty's learning curve in AAA will determine how quickly he arrives in the show.
He still has a list of things to check off. His swing tends to be a little long, not too surprising for a tall kid, and he's been making strides in shortening it during the season. Though his strikeout rate is certainly acceptable, he could use a little more two-strike discipline. Polanco's greatest value defensively is his range and his route-running is sometimes circular rather than straight line.
But his plusses overwhelm what appear to be lack-of-experience issues. His overall plate discipline should eventually carry over to his two strike approach. His average has been solid the past couple of seasons, with gap power. That should grow to 15-25 HR power in Pittsburgh. Although listed as 6'4", 170 lb., the reports this summer claim Polanco is now a mature 6'5", 215 pounder.
An outfield of he, Starling Marte and Cutch is a track meet waiting to happen. And he has 30+ stolen base potential. If you think that sounds a lot like last year's report on Starling Marte, it does, except Polanco is a bit more polished. No surprise there, as both hail from Santo Domingo and consider themselves brothers growing up in the Pirate organization. Additionally, he'll provide a lefty stick to balance the OF, and his splits the last couple of seasons have been excellent (.285 v RHP, .291 v LHP).
He's already tearing it up in the Fall Dominican League. That should provide him with a running start as he gets ready to suit up in AAA next season. He'll be added to the 40 man roster this year; and the question isn't whether he'll earn a spot on the active roster, barring injury, in 2014, but when.