The Pirates may have won 94 games last season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1992, but they are still a team looking at the future. Their farm system is regarded as one of the most talented in baseball. The Bucs have a number of young players in their pipeline that look to be future stars, but none that shine as bright as Gregory Polanco.
Pirate fans simply can’t wait for Polanco to arrive in Pittsburgh. Looking ahead to an outfield consisting of Polanco, Andrew McCutchen, and Starling Marte has the fan base giddy. It could be the most athletic outfield ever. Polanco has been ripping the cover off the ball this off season in the Dominican Winter League which has added fuel to the notion that the young super prospect is ready to join McCutchen and Marte now. That would be premature.
Winter League Baseball needs to be put in the proper context. It is a great place for players to get a quantity of ABs that need it. Players that missed time during the year use it for some added conditioning or to prove their health to prospective MLB teams. Marlon Byrd was a good example of that last year. His 2012 season was almost a complete wash out due to a PED suspension and injuries. So Byrd went to the Mexican Pacific League last Winter and put up a .318/.394/.595 slash line in 57 games which earned him a Spring Training invite with the Mets. But winter ball stats tend be pretty meaningless. It is nice that Polanco is second in the Dominican League with a .924 OPS until you realize the player he trails is Yamaico Navarro. Yes Bucco fans, that is the same Yamaico Navarro that hit .160 for Pittsburgh in 2012. And if Navarro ends up still leading the league in OPS at the end of the season he will join this illustrious group of players that have led the Dominican Winter League in OPS in the last 5 seasons: Juan Francisco (2012 & 2008), Brian Bogusevic (2011), Hector Luna (2010), and Wilson Betemit (2009). Not exactly a star studded group.
That isn’t to say young future stars like Gregory Polanco haven’t been helped by winter ball. A number of players recently had breakout seasons in the majors following strong campaigns in winter ball. Starling Marte had a slash line of .304/.381/.464 just last season in the Dominican League. Jean Segura of the Brewers and Junior Lake of the Cubs also put up strong numbers in the Dominican League last winter. And in the 2012 season of the Venezuelan Winter League Evan Gattis had a monster year in which he tied for the league lead in home runs and posted a .960 OPS. Gattis followed that up with a strong rookie campaign for the Atlanta Braves in 2013. But don’t get the idea that it was the strong competition in the Venezuelan League that helped Gattis become a breakout player in the majors. This was the same league that Gorkys Hernandez had a slash line of .367/.436/.469.
So how meaningful is it really that Gregory Polanco is tearing it up in winter ball? In my opinion not much. Andrew Lambo has been terrible thus far in the Venezuelan Winter League. He has just a .175 batting average and has struck out 14 times through 12 games. But Lambo has more to gain because he is getting some work in at first base. Lambo adding some versatility is really the most meaningful thing to come out of these winter ball seasons for the Pirates. It is time to put winter league baseball in perspective. Gaudy stats are nice, but no player is earning a place on the roster of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates by the stats they put up in winter ball.