Since Gregory Polanco's breakout in the Dominican Winter League, it's been inevitable that Spring Training 2014 was going to include a debate amongst fan and media members about whether he should break camp with the Pirates. It's been equally inevitable that that debate will end with Polanco's demotion to Indianapolis, coupled with an argument over whether or not the Pirates are truly dedicated to being a winning baseball team. We're barely a week into spring training games, and you can already see this discussion simmering. Last week (after two games!) I got an earlful from a friend that's a Yankees fan about how insane the Pirates would be to break camp with Jose Tabata in right field instead of Polanco.
I think that part of what has Pirate fans excited about Polanco is that he represents something new. The Pirates have brought up several top-flight talents over the last five years (Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, even Starling Marte), but each of those prospects were pieces of an unfinished puzzle at this point in their careers. Polanco is different; he's a five-tool myth (Did you hear about the throw he made last night? Look at this grainy video of him beating out a grounder to second for a single! He hit the longest home run I've ever seen last week!) that's suddenly in front of the general population's eyes for the first time, and he's hitting. He's not a puzzle piece that has an unknown role to play on an future contender at an unknown date; he represents an opportunity for a team that's a pre-season contender to add a wildly talented young player to the roster. Of course there are fans that want that. Of course there are people that will be upset at the thought of sending him to the minors to start the year so that it gives the Pirates an extra year with him down the road. In the past, that extra year in the unknown future was a year in which the Pirates were eventually going to contend. Now, building a contending club is a concern of the present.
The one thought that always gets lost in this conversation about the business reasons involved in the Polanco decision, though, is this one: there are justifiable baseball reasons to send Gregory Polanco to the minors to start 2014. As fun as Polanco is to watch in Bradenton, he's got 15 at-bats this spring. He's played a grand total of 70 games above Single-A right now, and while his Double-A numbers were plenty good for a player of his age and experience level, they were hardly indicative of a guy ready to face Major League pitching every single day (.263/.354/.407 with six homers, 36 strikeouts, and 36 walks). It is absolutely true that Polanco is at a stage in his career where he could leap from a solid Double-A prospect to a productive Major League regular between September and April. Just about two years ago, I got a call from my dad and my uncle, who were in Bradenton at the time, asking me if I knew who Polanco was. They'd seen him play catch before a Grapefruilt League game as one of the nameless minor leaguers (literally: ever spring training game includes a few minor league guys not on the 40-man roster that are allowed to play with the Pirates, and they don't have names on their uniforms) and were blown away by his arm and athleticism. I got out my Pirates Prospects guide and told them that he was physically talented, but relatively unknown and unproven. A lot has changed in these last two years, and I could certainly buy that Polanco's had another leap in development over the winter.
It's awfully hard to draw that conclusion from winter league stories and 15 spring training games, though. If Polanco is going to struggle, it's going to be with adjusting to Major League pitching. He's facing Major League pitchers in the Grapefruit League, but not Major League pitching. No matter how impressive he looks in camp, I think it's perfectly justifiable for the Pirates to say that his lack of upper level minor league experience makes them nervous about bringing him to Pittsburgh to start the year. Don't forget the rushed prospects of the Cam Bonifay era. Jose Guillen jumped from High-A to the big leagues at the age of 21 in 1997, and while he obviously had talent and showed flashes of brilliance, it took him until 2003 to really figure out how to hit in the Majors. Aramis Ramirez made his debut at the age of 19 in 1998 shortly after jumping from High-A to Triple-A. He was very clearly not ready for the Majors until 2001, but by then the Pirates had jump-started his service clock with nothing to show in return for it. That eventually forced one of the most disastrous trades in franchise history. The three best years in Ramirez's career were in 2004, 2005, and 2006; the Pirates would've had his rights for all three years if they'd managed him properly.
Of course, Polanco is already further along in his career than Ramirez or Guilen were when they made their debuts. He's 22 and he's got half of a season under his belt at Double-A. The point, though, is that while it's sometimes frustrating to see the Pirates slow-roll their prospects and it's easy to be cynical about their motivations, there are very real dangers to rushing prospects to the big leagues. It's very possible that making Polanco the starting right fielder on March 31st would be rushing him. The Pirates won't take that risk, though, and I don't really blame them for that approach.