INDIANAPOLIS -- Just one year after former Indianapolis Indians ace Kris Johnson led Escogido to a Dominican League championship, Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect and 2013 Tribe outfielder Gregory Polanco will have the same opportunity with this year's Escogido squad. Polanco and Escogido punched their title-round ticket early last week and are now set to begin a best-of-nine series against Licey tonight (Jan. 20), with the winner advancing to face the champions of the Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico Leagues in the Caribbean League World Series.
Polanco enters the final round of the Dominican playoffs facing the tall task of following in the footsteps of Johnson, who posted a 0.91 ERA through 59.1 IP during Escogido's title run last season. The former Tribe ace allowed just 37 hits between the regular and postseason with Escogido in 2012-13, while also featuring a stellar 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio with 50 punchouts and only 13 free passes. Johnson, who would later take home hardware as the Indians 2013 Pitcher of the Year, capped off his stint in the Dominican with 6.0 shutout frames in the series-clinching contest.
However, where Johnson worked just 27.0 innings during the Dominican's regular season, Polanco hit .331 (55-for-166) in 44 games to be crowned both the league's Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
"What made a difference in my performance down here has been being able to play around so many veterans," Polanco said through a translator. "It's not that I consider myself better or more advanced than the veterans, but by having the chance to play with so many veterans, so many big leaguers, so many people with way more years in professional baseball than me, I've been able (absorb) a lot of knowledge, especially when it comes to hitting."
Polanco's .331 clip included a league high-tying 55 total base hits and ranked just two points shy of the DWL's overall batting title. The top prospect also led all league hitters with his 28 runs scored and concluded the Dominican League's regular season ranked second in both RBI (28) and on-base percentage (.428), third in both walks (28) and slugging (.494) and tied for fourth in doubles (10). Perhaps even more impressive, Polanco compiled his dominating stats while missing several games throughout the winter due to illness.
The Pirates outfielder will now suit up in the Dominican League finals and potential Caribbean Series for what will be his fourth and final stop of a busy calendar year of baseball. After beginning the 2013 regular season with an All-Star selection in Hi-A Bradenton, Polanco then moved to Double-A Altoona in June, before concluding the campaign with his first Triple-A promotion to Indianapolis in late August of last year.
But it's the fourth and final stop of his campaign which has made the biggest impact on his young career.
"I've learned way more in the Dominican this winter than I learned throughout all the years in the minors," Polanco said. "The level of knowledge that all the veteran players have passed to me has been very valuable.
Although the outfielder has been limited to just four games in the playoffs prior to tonight's contest, he went 1-for-4 with a double and Escogido's only RBI in his most recent outing late last week. And for Polanco, the solid appearance marked not only a step towards being prepared for the Dominican championship, but also a return to form with Spring Training rapidly approaching.
"My job is to show up in Bradenton next month 100 percent ready and healthy," Polanco said.
Which again puts him on a similar path to Johnson, who followed up his own impressive stints in the Dominican and Spring Training with his Major League debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates.