Morosi: Pirates OF prospect Polanco may be ready for the majors

Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco is hitting .300 this spring in the Grapefruit League.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

All along, the Pittsburgh Pirates have planned for star outfield prospect Gregory Polanco to begin this season in the minor leagues. The approach is sensible enough. Polanco is 22. He’s played only 70 games above Class A. The Pirates can point to Andrew McCutchen (339 games in the high minors), Neil Walker (424), and Starling Marte (228) as evidence that patience with position players is a sound strategy.

The Pirates also have a payroll in the bottom half of the major leagues. Teams in that position often are cognizant of the "Super 2" salary arbitration threshold, which typically causes a player’s pay scale to escalate dramatically if he’s promoted before June. So, there is financial incentive in waiting.

Yet, Polanco is having a good spring. As in, a really good spring — the kind that can make an organization erase its penciled-in Opening Day roster.

Polanco, a left-handed hitter with great power, is batting .300 (6-for-20) in the Grapefruit League. He has three extra-base hits including one home run. And he’s more experienced than his minor-league track record would suggest, after an impressive winter with Leones del Escogido of the Dominican Winter League; he posted a .922 OPS in 44 games there.

Asked about Polanco over the weekend, one veteran scout offered an emphatic and succinct assessment: "He’s ready." But another rival executive offered a different opinion, pointing out that Polanco didn’t dominate Double-A last year (.762 OPS in 68 games) and should put together a successful stretch at Triple-A before earning the call-up. 

Polanco is expected to be the Pirates’ everyday right fielder by the end of this season, in a dynamic outfield alongside McCutchen and Marte. For now, the Pirates seem likely to begin the year with a platoon of Jose Tabata and a left-handed hitter such as Travis Snider, who is batting .400 this spring.

But Snider has a history of production in spring training (.908 OPS in nearly 300 career at-bats) and disappointment during the regular season (.701 OPS over more than 1,200 at-bats).

Polanco may not be a finished product, in terms of his plate approach and routes in the outfield. But Yasiel Puig proved last season that complete refinement is hardly a prerequisite for catalyzing a team’s success.

It’s worth noting that Puig didn’t begin last season in the majors, either. The two months he spent in the minor leagues at the start of last year served him well as he became a sensation with the Dodgers. Mike Trout opened the 2012 season at Triple-A, but it didn’t stop him from finishing second in that year’s American League MVP vote.

Still, Polanco’s status with the Pirates bears watching. The team had a relatively quiet offseason after reaching the playoffs for the first time in two decades, even losing free agent starter A.J. Burnett to the in-state rival Phillies. Pittsburgh has fallen back in love with baseball, and crowds at PNC Park increased by more than 2,000 fans per game from 2012 to 2013. Revenues went up accordingly.

The Pirates came within one swing of eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series last October — in part because of their patience with the likes of McCutchen, Marte and pitcher Gerrit Cole. But the Pirates’ mandate to win hasn’t been this strong in over 20 years. If Polanco is the best right fielder in the organization, he should be the right fielder on Opening Day.