If the descriptions of Gregory Polanco’s fabled athleticism don’t immediately intrigue people, the hard numbers and steady rise through the Pirates’ minor league system hammer home the value of the 22-year-old Dominican outfielder.
Polanco along with right-hander Jameson Taillon highlight a class of prospects who might steal the show at spring training, the yearly harbinger of hope that opens Wednesday when pitchers and catchers report to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Every major prospect publication or website has praised the Pirates’ system this winter — ranking it among the best in baseball for the collective depth of high-end prospects, and for specific individuals who project to be major league stars.
Baseball America crowned the Pirates’ system the best in baseball, the Sporting News ranks it among the top 3, and at least seven prospects rank in the top 100 of Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and an annual list by ESPN analyst Keith Law.
“It’s not something that we strive for but it’s something that’s nice, I hope, for our fans to see the depth of our minor league system being recognized,” said general manager Neal Huntington. “It’s a testament to our scouts, international and amateur, and our player-development staff. We’ve talked for years. In our minds, they were doing a great job. Maybe this reaffirms that.”
Huntington inherited the team in 2007 and set out to rebuild from the ground up through player development, scouting and baseball operations.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’ve got some magic formula but we wanted to accumulate the best talent we could on and off the field and use a systematic approach to develop that talent. It was about helping coaches become better coaches, our evaluators becoming better evaluators. Our players become better players.”
Polanco, on the 40-man roster after making the rise last year from high Class A Bradenton to Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis, is fresh off an MVP winter in the Dominican League.
He batted .331 for Escojido, including 10 doubles, 5 homers and 28 RBIs, and was named the MVP and rookie of the year. He walked 28 times and struck out 34 in 166 at-bats.
He has been compared to a young Darryl Strawberry because, like the former New York Mets star, he has lithe, long and effortless strides and possesses the stature and athleticism of an NBA star. He is branded a classic five-tool player.
“Well, I think when you look at him from a scouting standpoint he’s capable of anything. Capable of being a franchise type player,” said Larry Broadway, the club’s director of minor league operations. “He’s a tremendous young man with a lot of integrity. He’s an excellent athlete. Can run, throw, hit for average. He has power, defense. From purely what he has and what he’s worked for, there’s no limit to put on him.”
Taillon, the club’s top pitching prospect, went a combined 5-10 last season in the minors with a 3.73 ERA before making four quality starts to close the year with Indianapolis in Class AAA. He has a fastball in the mid-90s, a big curveball, but …
“He has to continue to work on his changeup. We value changeup usage highly with our starting pitching for a number of reasons,” said Broadway. “He is really just learning the art of using his weapons to attack major league-caliber hitters. He had a taste last year, continued to move up in the levels. It’s more than just going out there and throwing 97 with a big curveball. There’s a lot more to go into it than that.”
There is hope both can be ready this season, and, with questions in right field and the starting rotation, increasing pressure for their arrival in the majors.
Huntington is quick to warn neither will be elevated before their time.
“The worst thing we can do is rush a player because we have a need,” said Huntington. “We need to remain disciplined and bring players to the big leagues when not only they’re ready, but when they’re ready to help a team win in a playoff-type environment. That’s a very different level of readiness criteria. If it’s Taillon or Polanco or the next wave of guys, it’s not always going to work. We’re going to have to send some guys back sometimes. We’d rather be a month too late than a day too early.”
Five other highly regarded prospects will be in the minor league camp — right-handed pitcher Tyler Glasnow, 20; catcher Reese McGuire, 19; outfielder Josh Bell, 21; right-handed pitcher Nick Kingham, 22; and outfielder Austin Meadows, 19.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JennMenendez.