Polanco could soon fulfill superstar potential

Right fielder signed 5-year, $35 million deal with Pirates on Tuesday

Polanco could soon fulfill superstar potential

PITTSBURGH -- On and off the field, this week was a reminder of Gregory Polanco's enormous potential, a snapshot of all the reasons he was such a popular preseason pick to become a breakthrough star.

During the Pirates' three-game sweep of the Cardinals at PNC Park, Polanco's natural ability continued to shine through. Before the second game of the series, Polanco signed a long-awaited long-term contract extension, and general manager Neal Huntington referred to the 24-year-old outfielder as a significant "building block" for the organization.

"When we commit to a player, it's based on what we believe he's going to do," Huntington said. "You see the ceiling. How quickly can we help him attain that ceiling? Are we going to be able to help him attain that ceiling? That's our risk."

What leads the Bucs to believe Polanco is worth the $35 million risk? For a few glimpses, look at Polanco's performance over the past few days. Polanco showed power and discipline at the plate, drawing three walks in Wednesday's 5-1 win.

Statistics can be deceiving in such a small sample, but the Pirates have long seen the underlying traits and work ethic behind the numbers.

"He wants to do the right thing all the time, which is really hard," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's got a great heart and a great passion to be the best player he can be."

Polanco's sacrifice fly

The past two years, Polanco was more promise than production. The former top prospect hit a combined .249/.316/.369. Polanco's average exit velocity last season was 91.17 mph, and his average launch angle was 8.23 degrees, according to Statcast™. What happened to the kid who sprayed line drives and put up impressive Minor League numbers?

"He's the kind of guy who can hit the ball from line to line. That's when he's at his best," Hurdle said. "[Opposing pitchers] made him do some things to try to punch back. It took him longer than it ever has in the past because of the quality of the competition.

"Now, he's in a much better position -- from a maturity standpoint, from experience within the league -- to punch back."

On Opening Day, Polanco hit a double to right field off Adam Wainwright. The ball came off his bat at 109.2 mph with a launch angle of 17.6 degrees, according to Statcast™.

Statcast: Polanco rips a double

Every ball Polanco hit harder than that double last year had a launch angle below 13 degrees. In other words, even when he hit the ball hard last year, he was putting it on the ground.

Polanco worked this spring with hitting coach Jeff Branson to smooth out and shorten up his left-handed swing path as much as his long limbs will allow. Hurdle said the mechanical changes might not be visible to most. But if the right fielder's swing is right, the results will be noticeable.

Polanco's RBI triple

Through it all, Polanco has shown a willingness to work and a desire to improve, to turn those flashes of his potential into sustained success.

"I feel like I need to improve on everything right now," Polanco said. "Now that I have a contract long-term here, that makes me feel better. I just have to keep working hard every day and keep playing hard like I've played."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.