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Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Pirates taking a patient approach

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

If today is a day ending in "y," chances are Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is checking his laptop or cell phone and fielding an email, text or other inquiry from a media member wondering if he has any immediate plans for a certain Indianapolis Indians right fielder.

The Houston Astros created a frenzy when they summoned outfielder George Springer from the minors two weeks ago, and the Arizona Diamondbacks had to fend off a lobbying effort from Archie Bradley's agent before deciding to keep him in Triple-A Reno, where he just went on the disabled list with an elbow strain.

Now fantasy aficionados and prospect cognoscenti are hyperventilating over Gregory Polanco, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound man-child who is hammering International League pitching to the tune of a .400 batting average and a .632 slugging percentage in 105 plate appearances. He's creating as much conversation as is humanly possible for a player who hasn't smeared his neck with pine tar or broken his thumb sliding headfirst into a base.

Given that Pittsburgh's right fielders rank 26th in baseball with a .568 OPS (with Travis Snider and Jose Tabata the main offenders), it would appear the time is now for Polanco.

Judging from the general manager's tone, the answer is more likely "soon."

"Our evaluation of a player's readiness mentally, physically, fundamentally and personally to compete and thrive is what drives the decision to call that player up or not," Huntington said in an email to ESPN.com. "We will look to bring Gregory Polanco to the major league level when we believe he meets those criteria, not because we have a need."

Polanco, 22, was 17 years old and primarily a pitcher when the Pirates signed him for $150,000 out of his native Dominican Republic in 2009. Rene Gayo, Pittsburgh's Latin American scouting director, has observed that he looked like a "sick giraffe." But the Pirates had the foresight to shift him to the outfield, and they've seen progress at every level. Polanco busted out with 16 homers and 40 stolen bases for West Virginia in the South Atlantic League in 2012, and made major strides in the offseason when he hit .331 against more experienced competition to win the MVP award in the Dominican winter league.

The scouting community certainly appears sold. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Polanco 13th on his list of the top 100 prospects in January, and baseball talent evaluators love Polanco's combination of power and speed. He also earns rave reviews for his makeup and work ethic. If there's a question on Polanco, it's a tendency for his swing to get a little long. But that hasn't been an issue against minor league pitching.

"He's as close to the perfect player as you can get," said one scout, who called Polanco a mix of "Dave Parker with more speed, and Darryl Strawberry without the off-field baggage."

Said another scout: "He has a chance to be very impactful and dynamic on both sides of the ball. He's a plus-tool player with instinct and the ability to play up to all his tools."

The Pirates, nevertheless, want to give Polanco a little more time to refine his game. He has 1,800 plate appearances in professional ball and only 347 above Class A. For sake of comparison, Andrew McCutchen received a minor league apprenticeship of 2,223 plate appearances after signing out of high school as the 11th pick in the 2005 draft. McCutchen spent parts of three seasons in Indianapolis and logged 881 Triple-A plate appearances before his arrival in Pittsburgh.

"The guys that we have pushed have had a harder time than the guys with whom we have remained patient and have had 500-plus plate appearances at the Triple-A level," Huntington said. "While there have been exceptions, we are not alone in patience typically being rewarded."

Huntington told Pittsburgh reporters that economic factors will not be a "driving force" in the Pirates' timetable for Polanco. Nevertheless, the team can delay his salary arbitration and free agency by a year by holding off long enough on a promotion. McCutchen made his big league debut on June 4, 2009, and pitcher Gerrit Cole arrived on June 11 last season, so there's an organizational precedent for waiting.

The difference this year is that Pittsburgh is coming off its first postseason appearance since 1992 and had high hopes for a repeat performance. The Pirates are off to a slow start in part because of an offense that's 12th in the National League with a .647 OPS and tied for 11th in runs with 96 in 26 games. They're already 9½ games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central, and they don't want to wait so long to address their deficiencies that they fall into a hole that takes them the entire summer to escape.

Ultimately, short-term expediency and long-term economic concerns are secondary to what's best for Polanco's development. It would be easy for the Pirates to call Indianapolis today and put Polanco on a flight to the majors. The challenge is making sure that once he arrives, he has enough of a foundation in place to stay.