Bucs being patient with Polanco, despite pressure
Top prospect raking in Triple-A, but club wants to see more development before callup
PITTSBURGH -- Whatever the opposite of a "perfect storm" -- the popular characterization of a confluence of positive factors -- may be, it hit the Pirates on Saturday night. The imperfect tidal wave beached Andrew McCutchen before the contest and Starling Marte during the game against the Cardinals, forcing two infielders to share right-field duties for the last five innings.
Having right field turn into PNC Park's Area 51 only shed more intense light on what is already the most scrutinized stall of the Bucs' season. That is Pirates top prospect Gregory Polanco's position, and for him to still be in Indianapolis while Gaby Sanchez and Jordy Mercer were in right field predictably raised the volume of the howlers.
But if the Pirates believe in their reasoning for delaying Polanco's arrival, a couple of short-term injuries were not going to budge them. Even with the team about to take the Sunday Night Baseball stage at PNC Park for the first time in 18 years and network voices lobbying for the ratings kicker. The team indeed paged a left-handed-hitting outfielder from Indianapolis to help fill the breach -- but it was Jaff Decker, a spark plug with some big league experience.
Polanco, the 22-year-old stud whose speed on the bases is exceeded only by the speed of his development, continues to collect honors and plaudits; he was the Dominican Winter League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player this past offseason and Indianapolis' Player of the Month for April. Another team's scout a couple of weeks ago projected Polanco as "an immediate impact bat in the middle [of Pittsburgh's lineup]."
And the Bucs' decision-makers continue to get grief for holding off on Polanco's callup.
"The reality is, our roles come with tough and unpopular decisions," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday about the unrelenting media and fan calls to promote Polanco. "Our job is to make sure we make the right decisions for this organization for the righter reasons, and we believe we're doing it."
Huntington used "we" because he was including club chairman Bob Nutting, club president Frank Coonelly and manager Clint Hurdle in the cabinet. The top of that hierarchy took the carpet earlier this week, when reports surfaced that a long-term contract was offered to and rejected by Polanco.
Amid speculation that delaying Polanco's arbitration years factors into delaying his Major League arrival, many inferred that striking such a deal would've had him in the Bucs' lineup pronto.
While not confirming any offer, Coonelly shot down the reason people perceived it could have been made.
"One thing that we would never do in this hypothetical situation is say to a player, 'If you sign this contract, you'll be in Pittsburgh tomorrow. If you don't, you will not be in Pittsburgh tomorrow.'" Coonelly said.
So why will Polanco not be in Pittsburgh -- well, in Milwaukee, where the Pirates kick off a week-long road trip -- on Tuesday? Why will his .357 average and .984 OPS and 17 extra-base hits and eight stolen bases stay in Indianapolis?
Maybe Huntington grew up watching those old Ernest and Julio Gallo TV commercials, in which they pledged, "We will serve no wine before its time."
The Bucs are convinced it's not yet Polanco's time. Their belief is based on three numbers:
• 164: Polanco's total of plate appearances at the Triple-A level.
"This is more art than science," Huntington said. "But in general, players that have significant exposure at each level, especially at the upper levels and Triple-A specifically, tend to have an easier transition to the Major Leagues. They hit the ground running and become what you expect sooner."
McCutchen arrived in 2009 with 881 Triple-A plate appearances.
• .273: Polanco's cumulative Minor League average through 2012, a rather mediocre number covering four seasons.
That speaks to Polanco's rapid growth, but it also suggests he is still laying the foundation for a solid career.
"Our job," Huntington said, "is to put [Polanco] in a position to be successful, and to be successful quickly -- to put this young man in position to thrive from Day 1."
• May 2013: A year ago, Polanco was still playing Class A ball, with Bradenton in the Florida State League.
The romantic who wants to see him in a Pirates uniform yesterday can applaud his meteoric rise all he or she wants. But the pragmatic will concede that the road from Bradenton to Pittsburgh should be longer than one calendar year.
"Major League Baseball is strewn with players who were called up too early," Coonelly said. "You cannot look at the snapshot of a month and say, 'He's ready.'"
And there is also this set of bonus numbers: 11-for-42; that's how Polanco has fared in his last 10 games, a .262 clip that dropped his season average from .398 to .357 and underscored the fact he remains a work in progress.
"We're thrilled with how [Polanco] got out of the gate in Triple-A," Huntington said. "He continues to learn, continues to make adjustments on the fly, and refining his overall game. And we continue to be pleased with what we think he can become."
When Huntington and Hurdle cite Polanco's still-to-do list -- dealing with offspeed pitches, learning proper defensive routes in right field and how to use his speed on the bases -- they aren't just pulling things out of thin air.
Just the other day, an otherwise-impressed scout from another organization told ESPN.com's Danny Knobler that Polanco "needs more time with offspeed and right-field angles, but he's close."
The weakest argument of all for Polanco's quick arrival may have been the one made when the Bucs were struggling offensively -- not the case right now, with the club having collectively hit over .300 in 11 May games.
Huntington has often said of any prospect, "The worst thing we can do is promote someone because we need him, not because he is ready."
So the anticipation will build a little longer for Polanco. And when all the elements are in place, the National League will get its perfect storm warning.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.