Pirates expect refreshed Polanco to succeed

After up-and-down rookie year, outfielder didn't play winter ball

Pirates expect refreshed Polanco to succeed

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On June 10, the day Gregory Polanco finally joined the Pirates, he was asked whether he felt tired.

It was a legitimate query -- Polanco had been playing non-stop since the start of the 2013 Minor League season, through Winter League ball -- that drew a light-hearted laugh in response.

Polanco then spent 11 straight games getting hits to further mock the notion of fatigue -- before crashing hard.

In hindsight, the Bucs recognize that they let their prized outfield prospect get run down in 2014. As a result, Polanco was asked not to participate in this Dominican Republic Winter League season.

The absence from the league of a 23-year-old native son -- not to mention its reigning Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year -- is extraordinary. But the Pirates, from general manager Neal Huntington down, want to ensure Polanco shows up in Spring Training refreshed and recharged.

"We still think Polanco has the chance to be a really good Major League player," Huntington said.

Really good? Isn't that quite a comedown from the can't-miss-impact-superstar reputation that had preceded Polanco to The Show?

Of course it is -- but it is also part of the plan to free Polanco II from all the hype, pressure and expectations that ruined his first coming.

Or have you forgotten?

The two-month public outcry for his promotion, before Neil Walker's appendectomy at last made it happen (Josh Harrison had to come in from right field to tend to second)?

Huntington was wary because he "didn't think Gregory was ready," and club chairman Bob Nutting had a bad premonition.

"I'm not at all sure that we still may not be second-guessed at some point for rushing him," Nutting had said after Polanco's debut. "He's 22 years old. It's gonna be very hard for him to live up to the hype. It's not an ideal way to enter the game. He is gonna be a good player. We have a lot of faith in him. But he's played one game."

Polanco's first MLB hit

The 12 hits through his first six games, tying a Pirates record done twice in history, not since 1951?

The thud of Polanco crashing back to earth? He was in a 1-for-30 rut, dragging his average down to .241, when the Pirates sent him back to Triple-A on Aug. 25.

Was that an admission of defeat? On the contrary -- Huntington could have claimed victory. The whole point behind his patient philosophy of promoting prospects is to avoid ever having to send someone back down -- once Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Walker and Starling Marte got here, they stayed here.

"That was something I was afraid of. There is a reason those 300-400 Triple-A at-bats are valuable," Huntington said. "It's never been as hard to break in, with everyone having a pile of info on you the minute you arrive. In the past, it took teams a couple weeks to find your holes and go to work on them. With scouting, video, metrics -- they have that in hand when you show up."

What used to be the sophomore jinx has turned into the rookie wall. And Polanco hit it.

"He had to try to learn on the fly, with all the pressure on him," Huntington said. "It's tough to make adjustments like that."

Polanco will check into Pirate City fresh, and hungry. It will have been 4 1/2 months since his last game, the longest he will have gone without playing in his life. He'll be ready to approach the potential.

"He'll be better," promised Marte, his buddy and winter-long workout partner. "We hang out every day, and he's working hard to be good, and stay good."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.