Polanco finally makes debut for Pirates

Perhaps it is fitting that Gregory Polanco must run the farthest distance from the Pirates dugout to his position in the field. That will give the fans that clamored for the 22-year-old top prospect's promotion plenty of time to cheer.

As Polanco took the field Tuesday night, he signed a ball for a service member on Military Appreciation Night at PNC Park. He turned toward the Clemente Wall, wind-milling his arms to warm up, and the cheers from the right-field stands began, just as they did when he was introduced, just as they would when he popped out in his first professional plate appearance.

Polanco's addition to the active roster shifted the conversation from service time, arbitration, contract extensions and just how much seasoning at Class AAA is enough to will he hit in the majors? Steal bases? Can he handle the wall in PNC Park's right field?

Gregory Polanco excited 'like a child' to join Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco talks to the media during a press conference at PNC Park this afternoon. (Video by Peter Diana; 6/10/2014)

READ Bob Smizik’s review of Polanco’s performance.

Five years ago, Polanco faced other questions. He found his way here through sheer talent, a financially solvent handler and a scouting director who saw potential in leaving the mound behind.

Polanco was pitching when Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, came across him. Christian Batista, a trainer and coach in the Dominican who also serves as a buscon -- a type of talent broker who negotiates with major league teams on behalf of international free agents -- had two players Gayo liked. He had Polanco and he had Willy Garcia, who both came from the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.

Batista wasn't too worried about the money in 2008-09. He had done well the year before, Gayo said, with a $2 million signing bonus among his transactions. Underwhelmed by the offers he received, Batista was content to wait until Polanco's velocity increased before making an agreement.

"I asked him, 'What's your best offer on Polanco?' " Gayo said last week. "He said, 'I want $150,000, but the best offer I got is 70 [thousand].'

"I told him, 'Hey, listen. I'm going to give you your 150, but he's not a pitcher.' "

Gayo ended up signing Polanco and Garcia. He told Polanco he was going to play the outfield for the Pirates, not pitch.

"And he hugged me," Gayo said.

"He's my very good friend," Polanco said Tuesday of Gayo. "He's like my dad. He helped me a lot. He talked to me almost every day. If he sees something wrong with me, he'll always talk to me, say what happened, what's going on? He's always asking me what's going on in my life, not just in baseball."

That was early 2009. Gayo's staff, since departed, was in disbelief.

"They would all look at each other with a long look on their face like I had taken my clothes off in public or something," he said.

Polanco made his debut with the Dominican Summer League Pirates that season. The next year, he came to the United States. The 2012 season represented Polanco's first taste of full-season ball, and he appeared unfazed, perhaps energized, by it. In 116 games for Class A West Virginia, left-handed Polanco hit .325 with a .388 on-base percentage and 16 home runs on the way to being named the South Atlantic League player of the year.

"He was always a good player, very instinctive, played the game easy, which, it's very hard to find that in the Dominican," Gayo said. "Most of the guys tend to play a little bit out of control. ... That's one of the things that attracted me to him."

Polanco also stole 40 bases that year. He surprised Gayo, and himself, with his speed. The fastest time Gayo clocked Polanco with in the 60-yard dash was 7.19 seconds, considered well below average. As Polanco grew older and stronger, the game speed, the underway movement of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, improved.

"He got put on the [40-man] roster this winter, and I took him to dinner in the Dominican," Gayo said. "I told him, I said, 'You know, all the stuff you're doing doesn't surprise me except the running. There's no way I thought you were going to run like that.' He said, 'Me neither.' "

Polanco's progression accelerated in 2013. He spent 57 games with Class A Bradenton before proving himself worthy of a promotion to Class AA Altoona. At the very end of the year, he received nine plate appearances in two games for Class AAA Indianapolis.

In the winter, Polanco won the most valuable player award in the Dominican Winter League. He hit .331, missing the batting title by 2 points, with a .428 on-base percentage and a .494 slugging percentage. He put on 8 pounds of muscle before spring training and went 6 for 22 with a homer and two doubles before the Pirates optioned him to Indianapolis, where he proceeded to hammer International League pitching and frustrate fans.

As good as Polanco is, why was he in the minors while Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and, more recently, Josh Harrison played right field? The Pirates said they wanted Polanco to fine-tune his game, improve his baserunning and face off-speed pitches in hitter's counts. Gayo said there is merit to that.

"The way they pitch you in the major leagues, they don't pitch you that way anywhere else in the world," Gayo said. "They're going to pitch you backwards.

"I think the fact that they've allowed Gregory to [go to Class AAA] and experience that, that speaks volumes. It's a lot better to taste that for the first time in the minor leagues than to have to get to Pittsburgh and to have to learn that where probably every time you come up at-bat at the beginning, you're going to be getting a standing ovation or something. That's a lot to deal with."

What the Pirates couldn't say was that keeping Polanco in the minors until now reduced the chance that he would qualify for an extra year of arbitration after 2016, becoming what is known as a "Super Two" player. And while giving a top prospect consistent at-bats at Class AAA is common, and trying to avoid Super Two a part of the system, the Pirates' actions indicate that they thought he was ready earlier.

They offered him a contract extension in spring training that would have nullified service-time concerns. Yahoo Sports, which first reported the offer -- later confirmed by the Post-Gazette -- said the contract was worth roughly $25 million for seven years, with three option years. Polanco declined and started the season in Indianapolis.

After Polanco hit .347 with seven homers and 15 steals in 274 plate appearances for Indianapolis, the Pirates called him up. Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor made the announcement Monday in a team meeting after an Indians game.

"I didn't know," Polanco said. "They just said keep playing hard, keep doing what you're doing, and your time is going to come."

Before Tuesday, the Pirates were 30-33, 71/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division and three games back in the wild-card race. Strangely enough, the offense improved in May, leaving the starting rotation as the main culprit for the struggles.

Polanco can't help the rotation. His days as a pitcher are long gone.

READ about Polanco’s debut game.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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