Pirates outfield prospect Gregory Polanco, playing for Triple-A Indianapolis, went 2-for-4 with a home run and double on May 12 and 4-for-4 the next day with a double and triple. On Friday he went 3-for-4, and on Saturday he went 3-for-4 with two more doubles. On Monday he went 2-for-3 in the second game of a doubleheader, including another double. He's hitting .374 AVG/.435 OBP/.598 SLG with 14 doubles, five triples and five home runs -- and everybody wants him called up to the majors because we love prospects, the Pirates aren't playing Roberto Clemente or Dave Parker in right field, and the team could probably use a jolt of energy.
The Pirates are publicly saying that Polanco is still in the minors because he's learning to play right field and the finer points of baserunning (and maybe the proper technique for tucking in his jersey). The reason everyone else believes Polanco is still in the minors is money: By delaying his call-up date to sometime in mid-June or later, the Pirates could potentially save an estimated $15 million in future salaries to Polanco by starting his arbitration clock a season later, much as the Rays did a year ago with Wil Myers.
The Pirates can't say this is the reason Polanco is still in Triple-A because the MLBPA would likely file a grievance, but it fits the recent trend of teams -- especially small-market teams -- preventing some of their best young players from reaching Super Two arbitration status (the top 22 percent of players with more than two years of service time but less than three become eligible for arbitration).
So the refrain is that the Pirates are hurting Polanco and maybe even hurting themselves on the field. But are they really mishandling Polanco? Are 44 games in Triple-A really enough to prove that Polanco is ready for the big leagues?
I thought I'd check and see how Polanco's minor league service time compares to other top outfield prospects of the past 20 years. I went back to 1994 and reviewed all the outfielders ranked as a top-10 overall prospect by Baseball America (Polanco was 10th on this year's list) and then checked how many plate appearances they had in Double-A and Triple-A before reaching the minors. I included Double-A because many players skip Triple-A or pass through it briefly. The quality of play is a little stronger in Triple-A, but Double-A tends to have more elite prospects.
For counting purposes, I ignored brief appearances in the majors. For example, Vernon Wells was a September call-up in 1999, had two plate appearances in 2000, and played a few games with Toronto in May 2001 before getting called up again that September. I counted all his plate appearances in the upper minors in 1999, 2000 and 2001. For some players who had an extended stay in the majors before going back down -- like Domonic Brown -- I counted only the PAs up to the year of their first significant time in the majors.
The chart below lists the players, the first year they appeared as a top-10 prospect (not necessarily the year they reached the majors), their total PAs in the upper minors, and their age at their major league debut. (Josh Hamilton, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui were excluded due to their unique circumstances.)
As for Polanco, who turned 22 last September, he had 286 PAs last year in Double-A, hitting .263/.354/.407, hardly numbers that would suggest he was ready for the majors. He has 193 PAs in Triple-A this year (and nine last year), so he has 488 PAs so far in the upper minors.
The 35 outfielders above averaged 647 PAs in the upper minors. The fewest PAs belong to Rocco Baldelli, whom the Rays rushed to the majors after just 40 games above Class A. Andruw Jones, Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper and college players Jeffrey Hammonds and J.D. Drew also made rapid ascents with fewer than 300 PAs.
Even if the Pirates are holding Polanco back for financial reasons, I don't see the harm in giving him another 100 at-bats in Triple-A. Polanco has 35 strikeouts and 18 walks in Triple-A -- not horrible numbers, but not evidence that he's controlling the strike zone like, say, Heyward did in the minors in 2009 (30 walks and 21 strikeouts in his 50 games in the high minors). Polanco's numbers are excellent, but Giancarlo Stanton had 21 home runs in 53 games in Double-A when he was recalled, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts (44 to 53). Those are the kinds of elite talents you can quickly push to the majors.
Maybe Polanco will be a star immediately and make the Pirates regret not calling him up a few weeks earlier. But I don't think they're mishandling him. Giving a top prospect 500-plus PAs in the high minors is the historical norm.