The Pittsburgh Pirates promoted top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco to the major leagues a few days ago. Polanco has gone from unknown to stellar prospect in two years and is our topic for Monday's Prospect of the Day.
The Pirates signed Polanco as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009. At the time he was an under developed 6-3, 170 pounds and raw in most respects, but the Pirates were intrigued with his athleticism and he earned a $150,000 bonus. That's not chump change but it paled in comparison to the larger bonuses given out that year, including Miguel Sano ($3,150,000, Twins), Gary Sanchez ($3,000,000, Yankees), Guillermo Pimentel ($2,000,000, Mariners), Jose Vincio ($1,950,000, Red Sox), Jurickson Profar ($1,550,000, Rangers) and Juan Urbina ($1,250,000, Mets).
Polanco hit .202/.243/.287 with nine walks and 41 strikeouts in 188 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League in 2010, weak production although he did steal 19 bases in 21 attempts. Trying again in the GCL in '11, he improved to .237/.333/.361 with 24 walks, 33 strikeouts, and 18 steals in 169 at-bats. At this point, only the most fanatic Pirates fans had him anywhere on a prospect list: he had some tools, but so do a lot of other rookie ball players who don't pan out.
That changed dramatically in 2012: Polanco hit .325/.388/.522 with 16 homers, 40 steals, 44 walks, and 64 strikeouts in 437 at-bats for Low-A West Virginia. The improvement came in all facets of his game. He sustained the momentum with a .312/.364/.472 line in 57 games for High-A Bradenton in '13, followed by a less robust (but still impressive for his age) line at Double-A Altoona at .263/.354/.407 in 68 games. He stole 37 bases on the year.
He's been remarkably effective in Triple-A this year, hitting .347/.404/.540 in 62 contests for Indianapolis, with 24 walks and 44 strikeouts in 248 at-bats. He's also stolen 15 bases in 20 attempts.
All areas of Polanco's game are much better than they were three years ago. Part of this is physical maturity: he's 6-4, 225 pounds now, having filled out his frame, adding strength but without losing much quickness or flexibility. His range and arm strength work well in right field, though he played plenty of center field in the minors and is more than capable at that position. He's always been a threat to steal and has good technique to go with his above-average speed.
Hitting is where Polanco shines, of course. His strike zone judgment has improved dramatically compared to four years ago, and with physical maturity the ball simply jumps off his bat. There's little doubt that he'll hit for both power and average, and unless he suffers a serious injury or takes several steps backward with his approach, he's as close to a can't-miss prospect as you can get.
All that for $150,000. With the July 2nd period for international prospects rapidly approaching, Polanco (along with Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras) is a useful reminder that you can uncover jewels without spending millions of dollars.