Does the Absence of Andrew McCutchen Allow Gregory Polanco to Emerge as a Star for the Pirates?
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014
Overcoming struggles for the talented rookie
Gregory Polanco's debut with the Pirates was much anticipated by the fans when it happened in June. Early on he was living up to the expectations until right before the all star break when his weakness against left handed breaking pitches was taken advantage of by the Pirates opponents. This trend continued after the all star break when the Pirates faced the Rockies for six out of nine games to open the second half, and the Rockies rotation is made up of mostly left handed starters. After showing a very patient approach at the plate early on, Polanco was out in front and overanxious in a significant number of these at bats against left handed starters. While Polanco was not going hitless every day, it was not until the end of the Pirates recent 10 game west coast road trip, that he showed signs of breaking out of his slump. The end of the road trip marked the point where Andrew McCutchen suffered his rib injury, so the progress that Polanco was making with his adjustments was very welcome on the Pirates offense. With McCutchen no longer in the lineup to pick up the slack for slumping hitters, it appears that Polanco's timing is excellent in every aspect of the game.
Run production in the absence of McCutchen
In nearly every game since McCutchen has gone down with a rib injury, the Pirates have produced enough runs as a team to take a lead into the later innings. Greg Polanco took over the final game of a recent series against the Miami Marlins, when he drove in four runs on two separate hits with a left handed starter on the mound for Miami. Josh Harrison has played a key role in helping the Pirates to produce runs in the absence of Andrew McCutchen, but it is Gregory Polanco who has elevated his game with runners in scoring position and driven in the most runs since McCutchen was injured. With McCutchen's injury, Neil Walker has also been out with back problems recently, so the Pirates have had to turn to utility players such as Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez to fill out their starting lineups. These players are in there primarily to replace the defensive ability of the Pirates injured regulars, and they offer very little offensive value to the team. Due to Josh Harrison elevating his game at the top of the order, and Gregory Polanco elevating his game as a run producer, the Pirates have not seen a decline in run production, even with having defense first utility players in the lineup everyday.
Defensive value as a star outfielder for the Pirates
In the game against the Marlins where Gregory Polanco drove in four runs, he also made a play in the field that showed some of his defensive ability as a budding star for the Pirates. With runners on first and second, one out in the inning, Adeiny Hechevarria hit a fly ball down the right field line that Polanco caught in foul territory reaching into the stands. The catch itself was only a slightly above average play, but the throw that followed was highlight reel worthy. Polanco threw a one hop strike all the way to third base to get the runner who had tagged from second and was heading to third base. While Greg Polanco has also had a transition period with the move to right field, he continues to get better reads and better breaks with each passing day that he plays the position after moving from centerfield in the minor leagues. Also with each passing day, the reputation of Polanco's arm strength grows as more and more third base coaches decide to hold runners when he comes up firing the baseball. This type of respect is not given to many outfielders in baseball, but it is earned by a select few outfielders who regularly display an extremely strong and very accurate throwing arm.
Baserunning for the rookie
One aspect of Polanco's game that helps both his batting average and his outfield defense, is the speed that he possesses that allows him to track down fly balls along with beating out infield hits. This aspect of his game, along with his great instincts, allow him to be a very good base runner for the Pirates when he gets on base at the top of their order. So far this season, Polanco has stolen 10 bases in 13 attempts, with none being bigger than his stolen base against the Padres in the opener of a three game home series. After driving in a run to tie the game at one in his first at bat with a single to right field, Polanco then stole second base and moved to third base on a throwing error by the catcher. Polanco eventually scored on a sacrifice fly later in the inning, and his base running proved to be the difference in a two to one victory for the Pirates over the Padres. The great base running for Polanco has allowed him to put all five tools on display throughout his time with the Pirates in his rookie season. This display has not been put together as stardom until recently, and if he keeps it up the Pirates could have multiple stars on their roster for a significant period of time.
With Andrew McCutchen going down with an injury in the middle of a pennant race, the Pirates needed somebody to step up in order for them to keep pace. So far Gregory Polanco has answered this challenge in a big way that has allowed the Pirates to maintain their level of offensive excellence that they have worked hard to establish this season. While the absence of McCutchen over a long period of time is likely to hurt the Pirates offensive production, the emergence of Gregory Polanco is helping the team to fill that void temporarily while they wait for him to return to full health. Without McCutchen in the lineup, Polanco is being asked to be the guy for the Pirates and he has responded in a way that is well beyond his years and signals greatness for his future in the Major Leagues. Ultimately only time will tell though, as Polanco will look to live up to his prospect status with the Pirates in the coming years.