The long-awaited debut of Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco last season was less than what most around the game had anticipated – after breaking onto the scene with decent amounts of success, he faltered down the stretch – drawing criticism from more than a few fans in the Steel City.
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Opening the year with Triple-A Indianapolis, Polanco was ranked as the tenth-best prospect in all of baseball, per Baseball America’s 2014 preseason rankings. After struggling in the year prior between High-A, Double and Triple-A, he stepped up in a big way for the Indians, batting .320/.390/.504 in 305 plate appearances and also driving in 51 runs – easily enough to warrant a promotion to Pittsburgh for the stretch run.
Polanco made his big league debut on June 10 against the Chicago Cubs at home, going 1-for-5 with a run scored while manning right field for the Pirates in a 7-3 loss. Less than a week later during his first big league road game in Miami, a 13-inning affair, the young star went 5-for-7, scoring three runs and driving in a pair – raising his average (in an admittedly small sample size) to .381.
He put together several one and two-hit contests throughout the rest of the month and started July with a .296 clip – one that quickly fell all the way down to .247 by the time the calendar flipped to August. He kept the ship relatively even in the next 30 days, with his average falling just six points down to .241. By the time his season came to a close on Sept. 28, he was down to .235 – which is a far cry from what most fans expected from Polanco in his first taste of big league action.
Finishing the year with a .235/.307/.343 line to go along with seven home runs, nine doubles and 14 stolen bases in 89 games, Polanco did not appear in the Pirates’ National League Wild Card loss to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Needless to say, it wasn’t the ending the top prospect or Pirates’ faithful had in mind for the season.
However, there’s no reason to believe that both the Pirates and Polanco will not be back as a contender in 2015. Team general manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this offseason that the starting right field job is his to lose in 2015.
"“We think Gregory Polanco has the chance to be a really good major league player,” Huntington said Tuesday at the second day of the winter meetings."
If Pedro Alvarez bounces back and Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett help shore up the starting rotation, the team appears poised to challenge for an N.L. Central crown. However, a productive Polanco could very well push the team over the top.
Despite his struggles, Polanco has shown the ability to adapt throughout his professional playing career. As noted above, after struggling for most of the 2013 season at the Double-A level, he came roaring back last season with the club’s Triple-A affiliate at a level of competition he hadn’t even seen for more than a handful of games.
The same pattern was evident earlier in his career when he was working his way up through the lower levels of the organization. After batting .229/.322/.346 in 2011 between Rookie Level and Low-A ball, Polanco quickly silenced his critics and emboldened his backers in 2012 with the Pirates’ Class-A affiliate, batting .325/.388/.522 with 16 home runs and 85 RBIs and 40 stolen bases in a mere 116 games.
What’s become clear is Polanco is poised to prove he is one of the best young talents in the game today. The struggles and growing pains he experienced with the Pirates last season will only serve as a motivator for the young outfielder. If he takes his blows in stride and keeps pushing forward, there’s no reason he can’t emerge as a dark horse All-Star candidate next year – and beyond.