Pittsburgh Pirates: Reanalyzing the Starling Marte Trade
By Noah Wright
Now that Starling Marte is no longer on the Diamondbacks, let’s revisit the trade in which the Pittsburgh Pirates sent him there
The trade deadline is nearly two weeks behind us. Surprisingly, this was one of the most active deadlines we’ve seen in a long time. Though no major MVP-caliber names were swapped like they have in years past, the flurry of trades was very exciting. This, however, did not include the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One of the many players that was traded was outfielder, and a familiar name, in Starling Marte. The Pittsburgh Pirates had sent the former National League All-Star outfielder to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but the D-Backs shipped him out this deadline. The Diamondbacks entered the deadline sitting with a 14-21 start that left them in last place in the National West, and so they decided to sell. Marte was the biggest piece they moved.
So, now that Marte is no longer with the team the Pittsburgh Pirates traded him to, let’s take a look at this trade once again.
Marte in 2019 was a very productive center fielder, batting wise. Through 586 plate appearances, Marte had hit .295/.342/.503 with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases. All told, his offense was pinned at 119 OPS+ and wRC+. These stats put Marte’s overall offensive contributions on a scale where 100 is league average, and any point above/below it is 1% better/worse than average. It’s the best stat we have to look at offensive value as it is adjusted for ballpark factors, and league factors. Among players with at least 100 games played in center last year, only Mike Trout and Ronald Acuna Jr. finished with a higher wRC+ and OPS than Marte.
Defensively, he was one of the worst defensive center fielders in the league. Marte was last in MLB in DRS (-9), UZR (-7.6), range runs above average (-9.5), but still was considered to have a strong arm (+2 arm runs above average). Plus, it was only a year ago he was still considered a solid defensive center fielder (+2 DRS, +3.2 UZR). With two years of affordable control left, his value was at its highest.
When Ben Cherinton took over as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, trading Marte was one of his first things on his to-do list involving players. On January 27th, 2020, Marte was sent to the Diamondbacks for two prospects. The headliner was Liover Peguero. He was also accompanied by Brennan Malone. Though I was originally skeptical about this move, I think it’s one of the best trades the Pittsburgh Pirates as a franchise have made in a long time.
Let’s start with Peguero. The athletic shortstop was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. After a middling year in his first pro season, Peguero started out the 2019 season at Rookie-Ball where he absolutely raked. In 156 plate appearances, Peguero had hit .364/.410/.559 with a .423 wOBA and 159 wRC+. Though he only hit .262/.333/.357 when he was moved to Low-A, he did improve his plate discipline.
Peguero saw his walk rate rise from 7.7% to 8.6%, and his strikeout rate drop from 21.8% to 17.3%. He’s also considered a well above average fielder (55 future fielding grade) with a strong arm (55 future grade) and can cover a decent amount of ground (55 future run grade). He currently ranks as the 97th best prospect in baseball according to FanGraphs, but could rise to be a top 90 with Jake Cronenworth, Luis Robert, Jo Adell, Dylan Carlson, and Evan White all on the verge of losing their prospect status. Peguero has a very good hit tool (60 future grade) and although his game power does come out to just a 40 future, his raw power comes out to about average at 50.
Malone might be one of the most underrated pitchers in the Pirate farm system. Currently, FanGraphs pins him as the team’s 8th best prospect, but with being a first-round pick, and great grades, Malone could wind up being a top tier prospect. Malone was also ranked as one of the best prep pitchers in 2019’s draft, along with Quinn Priester, who the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted in 2019.
Despite being ranked as the 20th best overall player in the draft per MLB Pipeline, Malone was taken 33rd overall. There isn’t much professional work to go off of with Malone, having 8 total innings under his belt, but scouts love him. Malone’s best pitch is his fastball with a 55 current/60 future grade. It currently sits in the 91-96 MPH range, but he can reach back and top out at 99 MPH. Malone has two other, well above average breaking pitches, that being his curveball (55 future grade) and slider (55 future grade). Impressively, he has a fourth pitch that grades out at 50, or average, a change up. Malone is the only pitcher in the Pirate farm system to have three above average pitches, and a fourth average or better pitch.
Now that we saw what the Pittsburgh Pirates got for Marte, how did Marte fare in Arizona? Well, he did pretty good offensively with a .311/.384/.443 line and 122 OPS+/123 wRC+. A tad better than his output in his last season in Pittsburgh. Defensively, Marte did improve somewhat with -1 DRS and +1.7 UZR/150, but saw his arm take a bit of a hit with a -0.7 outfield arm runs above average. Marte provided the Diamondbacks a total of 1.1 fWAR through 138 plate appearances.
On July 31st, the D-Backs sent Marte to the Miami Marlins, who surprisingly are somehow not out of contention. 2020, am I right?
For Marte, the D-Backs got back three players. The most generally known of the three is Caleb Smith. Smith had two unimpressive seasons with the Marlins between 2018 and 2019. In total he had a 4.41 ERA, 4.73 FIP and 1.23 WHIP across 230.2 innings of work. Smith did carry a strong 26.3% streikout rate in both years, but a middling 9.6% walk rate and high 1.7 HR/9 rate. ERA estimators pretty much said he pitched to his ability with a 4.41 SIERA and 4.84 xFIP. However, he does possess a ton of spin on his fastball and curveball.
The second piece was probably the player the D-Backs were more interested in – Humberto Mejia. In 2019, Mejia played with the Marlins’ Low-A and High-A affiliate, pitching for a combined 90.1 innings. Mejia worked for a strong 2.09 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 2.88 FIP. Mejia only allowed six home runs, and had 6.9% walk/25.5% strikeout rates.
Mejia did struggle when he was promoted to the big leagues in 2020, but it was a small 10 inning sample size, and he had not appeared above the High-A level prior to 2020. The Marlins lost a year of development on the right hander as he lost all of 2017 to injury. Mejia does have four pitchers, his best being his 55 current/future grade curveball. He also has a 50 grade fastball, and two 45 grade pitches (slider, change up).
The third piece Arizona acquired was Julio Friars. Though he had a solid year at Low-A in 2019, he’s an unranked prospect, and was a player to be named later when the trade was originally released.
Personally, I think the Pittsburgh Pirates got back a better return for Marte than the Diamondbacks did. Mejia isn’t a bad piece, but Malone is a better pitcher. It’s not everyday you find a guy with four pitches that already project as average or better fresh out of the draft. Peguero looks like he could be a strong contact hitting shortstop with a decent glove, and has room to grow for some more power. Afterall, he already has a 90 MPH average exit velo and isn’t even 20 years old.