Ron Cook: Polanco crashes party in high style

Presumably, the Pirates slept well after beating the New York Mets, 5-2, Thursday night in the first of 10 consecutive home games against teams with losing records, a critical stretch of the baseball season that should go a long way toward determining their chances of making the playoffs for a second consecutive year. But they still barely could see the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division standings when they woke up this morning. Many people are asking: How much better would they be in the postseason race if management had called up Gregory Polanco May 1 or even June 1 to play right field?

It's a classic second-guess, the kind that irks Pirates brass to no end. I'm not going to take part. I'm here to defend the team's handling of Polanco. I can't argue with it.

Polanco was huge in this latest win, the Pirates' sixth in their past eight games. He drove in their first run with an infield groundout in the third inning, then put the game out of reach with a towering three-run home run in the fifth off Mets starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. To say that Matsuzaka was surprised and impressed would be an understatement. It was just the second home run he allowed in 732/3 innings going back to last season. No one in the majors has been stingier giving up the long ball.

"He's selectively aggressive within the strike zone," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of that home-run at-bat, during which Polanco worked the count full before jumping on a breaking ball and knocking it out of the park. "He's got very good strike-zone discipline."

It's off the charts for a player so young. Polanco, who has walked nine times and struck out just 10 in 68 at-bats, won't turn 23 until Sept. 14.

Polanco has hit safely in 14 of 16 games since joining the Pirates June 10. His batting average is .338, his OPS .857. He stole his fourth base Thursday night and has yet to be caught. His amazing speed, thanks to his long stride and all-out hustle all the time, makes a routine infield ground ball challenging for the opponent.

Polanco has been nothing less than a star in his short time in the big leagues. "A talented young man," Hurdle called him. "I'm humbled to have him and to be able to write his name in the lineup."

The team's management will tell you their patience in giving Polanco extra developmental time in the minors is a factor in his immediate success at the big-league level. They even will tell you they brought him up a little sooner than they would have liked. They had no choice after second baseman Neil Walker had to go on the disabled list after an emergency appendectomy.

It's hard to argue with that philosophy. Experience at Class AAA is important for just about every player. As it was, Polanco had just 257 at-bats at that level. Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen had 780 at Class AAA. He's turned out to be a pretty dynamic player, an MVP, of course.

But money is the biggest reason the Pirates kept Polanco down. By waiting until mid-June to call him up, the team likely avoided him qualifying for Super-2 arbitration status, which goes to players who have two years in the major leagues and rank in the top 22 percent of their class in service time. Those players get four years of binding salary arbitration as opposed to three years for the others in their class.

The savings to the club could be $15 million or $20 million down the road if Polanco becomes a star for the long haul. That is not a trifling amount.

Some have suggested the Pirates punished Polanco for turning down their seven-year, $25 million offer in the spring by keeping him in the minors. That's nonsense. They took a similar stance with pitcher Gerrit Cole last season, bringing him up June 11. It is a routine business practice for small-market teams.

We'll never know how many more games the Pirates might have won if they had called up Polanco earlier.

Remember, Josh Harrison had played well for more than six weeks and had pretty much put an end to the "Promote Polanco" talk before Walker's illness. Harrison made another big play Thursday night, starting in left field for injured Starling Marte and throwing out the Mets' Bobby Abreu at the plate in the second when the game was scoreless.

It does no good to look back with Polanco, anyway. There's too much to be excited about with his future.

He has given the Pirates a dynamic presence at the top of the lineup, batting .362 in the leadoff spot in the past 14 games with 13 runs scored.

It's fun to think about the possibilities when Marte's right middle finger heals and he gets back in the lineup in the No. 2 slot between Polanco and McCutchen. In 10 games when they batted 1-2-3, they combined to hit .343 with six doubles, two home runs, 22 RBIs and 24 runs scored

Summer is just 6 days old. The rest of it has a chance to be a real blast around here.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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