June 10, 2014
The Situation: Through Sunday, Pittsburgh’s right field triumvirate was collectively slashing .259/.313/.349, a relatively paltry line relative to the league average of .268/.337/.428. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Polanco has been assaulting International League pitching all season to the tune of a .945 OPS. As a member of the 40-man roster, Polanco has been the most logical answer for the team’s offensive woes in right field, but Pirates officials have cited developmental reasons for his continued stay in Triple-A. Accusations of service-time manipulation have been bandied about in light of the team’s less-than-stellar start to the season, and given the timeframe of the call up, more allegations are likely forthcoming.
Background: Polanco was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $150,000 and made his first appearance in a stateside league the following season, posting underwhelming numbers as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League. He improved slightly in a repeat appearance in 2011 but had his true coming-out party in the prospect-heavy spotlight of the South Atlantic League, as the 20-year-old delivered on the promise of his immense physical tools en route to a .325/.388/.522 line. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the no. 44 prospect in the game following that performance, setting a high bar for his continued development in 2013.
His play across three levels did not disappoint, as he posted a .285/.356/.434 line while facing much older competition in the Eastern League for the latter half of the season. He was ranked 24th in the game by the Prospect Staff and second overall in Pittsburgh’s system this past offseason, with Jason Parks noting some rawness in his overall game but a deep physical tools package that could one day mature into an all-star-type player in the majors. Despite some concerns about the overall polish in his game, Polanco made a mockery of the International League, posting a .347/.405/.540 line with 17 doubles, five triples, seven bombs and a 24:44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 274 plate appearances.
Scouting Report: A true five-tool player, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Polanco is a physical specimen with body comparisons ranging from Jason Heyward to Josh Hamilton. His immense upside is predicated on his bat, with plus-or-better projections on both his future hit and power tools. He sets up slightly open with loose hands in his setup and loads fairly deep, resulting in some length because of some bat wrap behind his head. Fortunately, Polanco has insanely quick hands and can barrel balls on the inner half with ease with a bat that stays in the zone for an extended period and picturesque extension out front with a touch of lift at the end. His lower half is fairly simple, beginning slightly pigeon-toed with a repeatable leg lift, displaying coil in his hips, and achieving separation before eventually firing his back hip with force and efficacy. The result is an aesthetically pleasing stroke with plenty of bat speed that is both efficient and productive, melding his incredible physical tools with the intricacies of an advanced swing.
Polanco has the potential to hit for a high average thanks in part to his preternatural barrel awareness in all quadrants of the zone, eventually settling in the .285-plus range with a decent amount of free passes. His overall power package could be his calling card, as his strength and bat speed gives him the ability to log high extra-base hit totals in any given year, potentially accumulating up to 30 bombs over the course of a season. It’s the type of offensive package that could profile in the middle of a big-league lineup, which doesn’t come around very often.
On defense, Polanco covers wide swaths of real estate in right field, exhibiting extremely long strides and plus speed once underway. His routes were a concern in a recent viewing, as he showed a lack of familiarity with the proper angles in right field, displayed developing tracking skills, and showcased less-than-impressive footwork on hard grounders that reached the outfield. These are teachable skills that should be ironed out as he plays in Pittsburgh. He projects to be an above-average defender in a corner with a plus arm.
Immediate Impact: With part-time right fielder Josh Harrison filling in for the injured Neil Walker at second base, Polanco should have a starting role as of today, giving the team one of the most athletic and talented outfields in recent memory. The 22-year-old has what it takes to be an immediate contributor, but secondary and tertiary passes through the league could present a challenge as pitchers develop a plan against him. In recent looks, his approach has been a slight concern, as he’s displayed a propensity to aggressively chase off-speed pitches out of the zone. This could be an area where pitchers with a plan can exploit the player through sequencing, manipulating a fastball-heavy appetite with various off-speed looks. Polanco will need to make a secondary adjustment once this occurs, but a steep learning curve should not be a huge concern for a player who has always been much younger than his peers in professional baseball. As is the case with any young player, expect some struggles to occur down the stretch, but be sure to enjoy the flashes of the all-star-caliber player that he is as he offers them up. —Ethan Purser
Fantasy Impact: Prospect call-up season is one of the best parts of the fantasy calendar, because it brings some potential impact talent into the league. Players like Polanco are already rostered in just about any format, but they can have a trickle-down effect that pushes other guys onto the waiver wire. Maybe the team holding him in a 10-team mixed league has to cut a Dexter Fowler or Khris Davis type to make room, and then that discard becomes someone for the other teams to pounce on. But let’s focus on Polanco and what he can deliver as part of what should be an obscene outfield in Pittsburgh.
Polanco draws comparisons in fantasy circles to his outfield teammates, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, because he is also a power-speed asset capable of delivering across-the-board awesomeness while ensuring that nothing hits the ground as he patrols the outfield in PNC Park. That last part is generally less important to us in the fantasy realm, but it could be vital if he struggles out of the gate, as the team would be more inclined to keep him in the lineup as long as he’s delivering on one side of the ball. The comps to Cutch and Marte might feel lazy because they’re so obvious, but sometimes the easiest answer is the right one.
As with the other two Pittsburgh outfielders, Polanco’s speed is already present, while the power will likely take some time, as it did with McCutchen (and as it is now for Marte). McCutchen hit 12 homers after an early-June call-up in 2009 and then 16 in his first full season in 2010. He went 33-for-43 on the basepaths in 2010 after an even more impressive 22-for-27 performance in his abbreviated 2009 debut. Marte wasn’t up until late July in 2012, and he popped five homers before smacking 12 in 135 games just last year. He sustained his value with 41 stolen bases in 2013, despite an MLB-high 15 times caught stealing.
Polanco is more McCutchen than Marte when it comes to his plate discipline, with a 16.1 percent strikeout rate and an 8.8 percent walk rate in Triple-A. Cutch was at 15.6 and 9.9, respectively, as a minor leaguer, while Marte was at 19.9 and 5.1. Thus Polanco has a better shot of matching the .286 batting-average and .365 on-base percentage that Cutch debuted with as opposed to the .257/.300 we saw from Marte upon arrival. Recent history suggests that if he sticks, he’ll contribute. Over the last three seasons, the five rookie outfielders aged 22 or younger (Polanco is 22) to log 350-plus PA have all been above-average assets, including some of the biggest studs in the game: Mike Trout, Yasiel Puig, Wil Myers, Bryce Harper, and Oswaldo Arcia. And while Arcia is definitely the “which of these is not like the others” of that group, he did pop 14 homers in 378 PA last year.
There’s nothing in Polanco’s game that suggest he won’t succeed, but immediate production is never guaranteed with youngsters. Remember, Trout had a .672 OPS in 135 PA during his first tour of the majors before becoming the game’s best player. I’m betting on Polanco, and I can’t wait to see what he does, but don’t go out and trade your more established assets just to get the shiny new toy, especially in non-keeper leagues. —Paul Sporer
Ethan Purser is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @EthanPurser