- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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After two months of speculation, yearning from fans and guarded responses from the front office, the Pirates finally recalled 23-year-old outfielder Gregory Polanco. As Alex Speier wrote on ESPN Insider, Polanco's story is a fun one, as he rose from a gangly and raw unknown prospect just two years ago to become one of the most hyped players in the minor leagues.
He made his debut in front of a hungry group of Pirates fans, hungry for their team to find the same winning formula as last year's Cinderella squad. Polanco, they hope and believe, will provide that first necessary spark. Over 31,000 came out to PNC Park -- much higher than the club's first three Tuesday games that averaged 17,865 fans.
Polanco certainly showed some energy: He lined a base hit to left field for his first hit and later scored on Andrew McCutchen's home run to center, racing around the bases with his greyhound speed, not realizing the ball had cleared the fence. He greeted McCutchen with a huge smile, the innocent joy of a rookie. I guess he has plenty of years to become a grizzled veteran who learns how to play the game the right way.
That was his only hit as he went 1-for-5 as the Pirates lost 7-3 to the Cubs. He misplayed a fly ball in the seventh, tracking down Anthony Rizzo's deep liner but seeing the ball clank off the heel of his glove. It was ruled a double but the play should have been made. The Pirates have mentioned how he's still learning to play right field after playing primarily center before this season, but this looked like a rookie mistake, perhaps wary that he was too close to the wall and unfamiliar with the park.
I liked his approach against tough lefty Travis Wood, not the easiest guy to make your debut against considering Wood's five-pitch arsenal. He took the first pitch in all five of his plate appearances, falling behind in four of those trips. He did pop out twice and in the eighth inning even appeared a little miffed when a 2-0 Wood fastball at the knees was called a strike. He pulled the next pitch to second base, a routine grounder that showcased that great speed.
Time will tell about the hype. He hit .347 with seven home runs at Triple-A Indianapolis, but that was after hitting .400 in April. I'm not sure he's a polished player just yet, so I would advise Pirates fans to restrain their expectations. After the game, Cubs manager Rick Renteria compared his to swing path to Ken Griffey Jr.'s. That's high praise, of course, and certainly hints at Polanco's potential, even minus some of Junior's power.
He joins McCutchen and Starling Marte in what should develop into an outstanding defensive outfield -- all three are natural center fielders and once Polanco gets settled in right that trio is going to run down a lot of balls in the gaps.
What's the upside here? McCutchen, 27, is the reigning MVP, one of the best all-around players in the game. Marte, 25, was worth 5.5 WAR last year thanks to a good year at the plate, outstanding defensive metrics and 41 steals. But he's hitting just .244/.315/.378 this year. Polanco doesn't turn 23 until September.
That's a young outfield and an exciting one and probably an excellent one in time. Considering McCutchen is signed through 2018, it's a group that should be together a while. There is another young outfield worth mentioning, however: Christian Yelich (22), Marcell Ozuna (23) and Giancarlo Stanton (24) of the Marlins are even younger and Ozuna and Stanton are currently outproducing Marte and McCutchen at the plate. All three also rate as plus defenders.
Which trio do you like better? I think it's a coin flip right now, depending on whether Yelich (.259/.341/.421 so far) or Polanco develops into a star hitter.
Polanco's call-up also generated some discussion on Twitter on how the potential of the Pirates' trio rates historically among outfields. That's a pretty tough area to crack. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I searched for some of the best young outfields of the past 50 years, using the following criteria: All three outfielders compiled at least 3.0 WAR; all three were 27 or younger with at least two 25 or younger.
The last such group was the 2011 Diamondbacks with Gerardo Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton. That team did win 94 games and Upton was fourth in the MVP voting, while Parra and Young were outstanding defenders. Three years later, however, only Parra is on the team.
Here are some of the other best young outfields of the past 50 years, a reminder that good things don't always last or develop into great things:
1999 Royals: Carlos Beltran (22 years old, 4.7 WAR); Johnny Damon (25, 5.4); Jermaine Dye (25, 4.7)
Hey, they all played in the World Series ... but with different teams, none of them in Kansas City. Damon was traded after the 2000 season, Dye in 2001 and Beltran in 2004. If only they could have remained together. Combined career WAR: 143.9.
1995 Angels: Garret Anderson (23, 3.0); Jim Edmonds (25, 5.6); Tim Salmon (26, 6.6)
Those three combined for 83 home runs in the shortened 1995 season and Anderson hit .321 and Salmon .330. They lost a tiebreaker game that year and didn't make the playoffs until 2002 -- after Edmonds had been traded to the Cardinals. Career WAR: 126.4.
1985 Blue Jays: George Bell (25, 4.1); Lloyd Moseby (25, 3.1); Jesse Barfield (25, 6.8)
Fans my age will remember Barfield's arm but all three could play. Led by these three guys, the Jays won the AL East and were up 3-1 over the Royals in the ALCS. But they lost that series and then blew the AL East on the final weekend of 1987. But Moseby faded after that year, Barfield was traded in 1989 and Bell left as a free agent after 1990. Combined WAR: 86.6.
1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (21, 8.8); Dwayne Murphy (25, 6.9); Tony Armas (26, 5.9)
Note the WAR totals: They ranked second, fifth and 11th among AL position players that year. All three were capable of playing center field but with completely disparate games. Henderson, of course, was the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, already one of the best players in the game at 21. Murphy was a tremendous center fielder (he won six Gold Gloves) who drew a lot of walks. Armas slugged 35 home runs and had a cannon for arm but never walked. They made the playoffs in 1981 and that was it. Murphy and Armas both and had their best seasons in 1980 and Armas was traded to the Red Sox for Carney Lansford after 1982. Combined WAR: 159.7.
1978 Expos: Warren Cromartie (24, 4.4); Andre Dawson (23, 4.8); Ellis Valentine (23, 5.6)
At the time, it was Valentine who most would have bet on as the future Hall of Famer, a lean, powerful, right fielder with a legendary arm. But '78 would be his best season and he would battle cocaine problems. It would also be Cromartie's best season. None of the three walked much and while Dawson became one of the best all-around players in the game, the other two never improved as hitters. Combined WAR: 97.8.
1975 Red Sox: Jim Rice (22, 3.0), Fred Lynn (23, 7.4), Dwight Evans (23, 5.1)
How good was this group? Lynn and Rice finished first and third in the MVP voting as rookies. The Red Sox lost the World Series (which Rice missed with an injury), but the future looked bright. Instead, this group never reached the postseason together again (although Rice and Evans were still around in 1986). Evans didn't really become a great player until 1981, by which time Lynn had signed with the Angels. Interestingly, the guy with the lowest career WAR is the one in the Hall of Fame. Combined WAR: 164.2.
1973 Giants: Gary Matthews (22, 3.4), Garry Maddox (23, 4.7), Bobby Bonds (27, 7.8)
The Giants were churning out good-to-outstanding outfielders like clockwork around this time -- Jack Clark came along a couple years later. Maybe they took them for granted. Bonds -- the Giants blamed him for their struggles (he did have off-the-field issues) -- was traded for Bobby Murcer after 1974, Maddox was sent to the Phillies in 1975 in an ill-advised deal for Willie Montanez and Matthews left as a free agent after 1976. Combined WAR: 124.5.
1967 Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski (27, 12.4); Reggie Smith (22, 3.4); Tony Conigliaro (22, 3.7)
The core of the Impossible Dream Red Sox. Yaz had one of the greatest seasons of all time in winning the MVP and Triple Crown while the rookie Smith was on his way to a borderline Hall of Fame career. Tony C was the heartbreaking story: He was hit in the eye that August and missed the rest of the season and all of 1968. Vision problems eventually prematurely ended his career. Combined WAR: 172.9.
As you can see, some pretty dynamic trios there. But maybe these Pirates will do something none of those groups did together: Win a World Series.