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Ask around and some folks will tell you every rookie will be a superstar. The allure of the unknown is almost as powerful as the world devouring force of a black hole. Moving beyond those that are completely unreasonable, there are prospects that everyone looks at and thinks “can't miss.” Of course some do – hello Delmon Young and Brandon Wood – but all experts look at Mr. Polanco of the Pirates and think he will one day be a star.
Gregory Polanco is going to be a star. Just ask around. Three of the most respected sources at evaluating talent all agree with that statement, though with the way that Polanco's name has been hyped you might be surprised to find that he's not ranked as highly as some would lead you to believe.
2013: 51st best prospect in baseball
2014: 10th best
2013: 44th best prospect in baseball
2014: 24th best
2013: 65th best prospect in baseball
2014: 13th best
Standing 6'4” and weighing 225 lbs, the 22 year old left hander from from Santo Domingo cuts an imposing figure in the batters box, of that there is no doubt.
2010-11: Starting very slowly, Polanco hit six homers over his first 105 games at Rookie Ball. He stole 37 bags in 39 chances but he also hit a mere .218 over 357 at-bats.
2012: Finally showed what was expected in his third season. In 116 games at Single-A ball he hit .325, hit 16 balls over the fence and stole 40 bases. He also drove in 85 while scoring 84 times.
2013: In 57 games at High-A ball he hit .312 with six homer and 24 steals. He chewed the league up. Promoted to Double-A the results were solid if not explosive as he batted .263 with six homers and 13 steals over 68 games.
2014: Every day the numbers grow more impressive as he continues to prove he has nothing left to prove at Triple-A. Through 58 contests he has driven in 48 runs and scored 45 times. He's also hit six long balls while swiping 14 bags. He's got a rather astounding slash line as well: .355/.412/.550.
AVERAGE: Most scouts will tell you that Polanco has a bit of a long swing that could use some tightening up At the same time he displays elite bat speed and has a pretty solid understanding of the strike zone. He sure seems to barrel up the ball with ease, and though he's got a hole on the inner half of the zone he compensates pretty darn well. He can also hit the ball the other way. This bodes well for his batting average floor. Since 2012, a span covering 1,146 at-bats, Gregory has hit .312. In those 301 games he's also struck out just 177 times while walking 118 times. Obviously we would like to see him walk a bit more, but 0.67 BB/K rate is solid as is his 84.6 percent contact rate (the big league average last year was 79 percent). A bit on the odd side is a career 17 percent line drive rate, a number that should be higher and one that your eyes/mind tell you he should be easily able to blow past long term. There's little here to suggest that he won't be capable of being an immediate contributor in batting average.
ON-BASE SKILLS: I noted I would like to see him take a walk a bit more, especially if he is going to bat at the top of the Pirates lineup. Still, his approach is already more advanced than hack at everything Starling Marte. His career OBP is .358, and that includes some atrocious work in Rookie Ball when he was adjusting to professional baseball (.289 OBP over 101 games). In 2013 he produced a .356 mark and this year he's bumped that mark all the way up to .412. Getting on base will obviously lead to runs and the ability to steal bases.
POWER: Scouts are a bit divided with what to expect here. Some think 20-25 homer seasons are a given. Others think he will settle in to the 15-20 range yearly. Polanco hit 16 homers over 116 games in 2012 but he dropped down to 12 homers in 127 games last year. He's about on that pace again with six big flies in 58 games. The main issue is that he's not a big fly ball bat at this point. Less than 30 percent of all his batted balls end up in the air, and as a result he's going to have to have one of two things happen to realize his 20 homer power off the drop. (1) He's going to have to post a big time HR/F ratio. (2) He's going to have to lift the ball more frequently. I wouldn't expect either to happen in 2014, but that will come. He's still got the power to hit the ball into the gaps and into the seats, but he's no Jon Singleton at the moment.
SPEED: He doesn't have elite Billy Hamilton speed, but he's not far behind. This is what places Polanco's fantasy value above guys like Singleton and Oscar Taveras. Polanco is going to run, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if he burst out of the gate with a 30 steal pace, prorated of course to the number of games he will play. In 2012 and 2013 he stole 40 and 38 bases, and that was despite playing an average of 122 games a season. He's kept running this year at Triple-A with 14 steals in 58 games. He's also been able to post a success rate of 79 percent, right at what we like to see from runners (the target is 80 percent and up). Can't see the Pirates putting the breaks on this part of his game. When he gets on he will run.
We don't know when Polanco will be called up but it will likely be very, very soon. He will play daily in the Pirates lineup. He's been working on hitting leadoff, and he might even fill that role with the Pirates. No matter what spot in the lineup, he should be added for his all-around fantasy game. Of all the offensive players called up this season, none has a better chance of being a five category performer than Polanco. He should be added in every league that starts five outfielders on the chance that his talents shine through in year one even if there should always be some guarded skepticism with any young player, even a prospect of Polanco's talent.