The two biggest topics regarding the Pittsburgh Pirates at the moment are super-prospect Gregory Polanco, whose bat should’ve been with the team for the past month, and Pedro Alvarez, who has followed a 35 HR, 100 RBI season by dropping his OPS, thus far, by about 100 points from 2013. Third, probably, is the emergence of spunky Josh Harrison (.810 OPS so far) as the real deal as an everyday player. Harrison, who can play nearly every position (I even saw him pitch in Denver last year), has been starting in right field while fans, and no doubt players, wait for Polanco’s call up.
But the utter failure of Starling Marte to reveal himself as a major-league baseball player this year has been overlooked, mostly, by media and fans so far this season. As we enter June, Marte is on pace for 185 strikeouts, and anyone who has followed the Pirates this season has visions of third strikes either looking at fastballs down the middle or swinging at balls in the dirt come to mind when Marte’s name comes up. Marte’s own head coach, the normally glass-is-always-full Clint Hurdle, has publicly asserted that Marte might often not know what the count is during a given at-bat.
It’s hard to not also think of ugly, sub-Little League baserunning gaffes when Marte’s name comes to mind. Despite blazing, gazelle-like speed, the Dominican-born Marte was thrown out attempting to steal 15 times last year and is on pace to be thrown out a dozen times this year. Embarrassingly, Marte was picked off second base on Friday in Los Angeles with pitcher Francisco Liriano at the plate and a runner on first. And he was picked off six times last season. His gaffe on Friday alone would get a Pony League player chewed out, but Marte is guaranteed to be a major leaguer – or at least be paid millions per year by a major-league ball club – for a very long time.
Yes, before this season the Pirates made Marte, who played 47 games in the bigs in his rookie year (2012) and then just 135 last year because of injury, an extremely wealthy young man. Marte is guaranteed $27 million dollars by Pittsburgh through 2021 and can make approximately an additional $20 million if the Pirates exercise team options in 2020 and 2021.
The superbly talented Marte’s career high in homers is just 12. Walks? 25. RBI? 35. Though he did hit an impressive number of triples in 2013 (10), Marte’s OPS was just .784, which was actually higher than Alvarez’s, despite Alvarez’s sexy aforementioned 2013 homer (35) and RBI (100) totals.
Marte had just three hits and one stolen base in 26 postseason at-bats last year, between the wildcard game and five NLDS games. Other than his one base hit (a home run) in the NLDS against St. Louis, his presence at the top of the lineup dragged the Pirates down, just as it did the first two months of this season before Hurdle dropped Marte all the way to seventh.
Still, the Pirates presumably saw Marte’s raw talent and assumed that his baseball skills would develop and discipline problems would fade. But Marte’s fundamentals at the plate have worsened in 2014 and it’s possible he’ll surpass Alvarez’s mind-boggling strikeout numbers (186) from 2013.
So how does Marte’s very, very long-term contract look at this point, just a few months after it was signed? Not great. It’s one thing to sign a young, talented, raw player to a long-term contract hoping he’ll improve power numbers or just increase production across the board, but Marte has never made it through a full major-league season, and has never shown that he can go weeks, let alone months, without regularly committing mental mistakes at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths.
It might have been more intelligent to wait until Marte has one impressive full season in the majors to sign him through his arbitration years. The similarly undisciplined Jose Tabata’s long-term contract was way more team-friendly than Marte’s, guaranteeing about half as much money.
If Tabata continues to show he’s no more than a productive bench player, the top salary the Pirates will pay him is $4.5 million, in 2017, the last year before a $250,000 team buyout of the contract is available. If Marte’s .680 OPS thus far this season continues as the norm – or he even bumps that up to .750 or so – and his total lack of fundamentals continues, he can’t remain a starter, but the Pirates would still be on the hook for $5 million in 2017, $7.5 million in 2018 and $10 million in 2019, before a buyout is possible.
For a team that doesn’t open its wallet much for free agents (This past offseason Edinson Volquez and Clint Barmes were it) the money they owe Marte – who may or may not start to show he deserves it – might end up hurting Pittsburgh in a big way. Then again, like with Alvarez, the talent is there and Marte, if he ever finds consistency, could become a star.