Say this for Dave Littlefield - he didn't have much of an eye for pitchers, but he could spot a centerfielder. In 2005, he drafted McCutch, and two years later inked a 17 year old Dominican product, Starling Marte, who is now the next big thing in the system. Rene Gayos signed him for $85K, which may work out to be one of the best bargains struck in recent Bucco memory.
In the past three years, Marte has gone through the levels from A ball to Altoona, and hit .300+ at each stop. He's slated to open at Indy this season after winning the Eastern League batting title in 2011 with a .332 average.
Considered by many to be a five tool player blessed with a great baseball physique, he didn't show much long ball bop until last season, when he hit 12 homers for the Curve. And that was just a year after having power-sapping hamate surgery. The other tools were all evident: speed, an arm, a glove and the ability to hit for average.
MLB.com ranked him as its #40 prospect, The Hardball Times as #48, Baseball Prospectus as #56, John Sickels as #64, Keith Law of ESPN as #73, Baseball America as #73, and The Scouting Book as #80 with a bullet. While not exactly in the can't miss category, those ratings are pretty fair indicators of Marte being on the radar, especially as a AA player.
And other teams know his potential. When the Bucs showed some interest in Met first baseman Ike Davis, the New York brass was reported to ask for Marte as part of the return package. That shut down that avenue in, well, a New York minute. Washington had even less luck; they were told he was unavailable. Now the Pirates claim no one on the roster is untouchable if the price is right, but it would take one heck of a deal to pry Marte loose.
The 23 year old has been in six spring games this year. He's put up a .692 average with a eight-hit streak and a couple of homers in 13 ABs. That showing won't get him a ticket to Pittsburgh yet.
Marte is still raw for all his physical tools. His command of the strike zone needs considerable work, as his Altoona 100K to 22W ratio shows. The more veteran hurlers in AAA will try to exploit his plate aggressiveness, so that will be his first challenge. He has plus speed, but his stolen base success rate last year was a so-so 67%. Marte has to work on combining pitching reads with his pure speed to improve on that phase of the game.
He gets a great jump in the outfield, but sometimes his routes are iffy and he considers every ball catchable, so he needs to polish up his mental game plan in the pasture. Marte has also had some problems this spring in adjusting to the corner outfield, a combination of unfamiliarity with the position and Florida's windy conditions.
While he'll patrol center at Indy, he's ticketed for the vast expanses of PNC Park's left field when he gets his call. It's thought that his physical tools could eventually earn him a spot in center, but Cutch will not go gently into that good night.
When will that call come? It depends on not only Marte's body of work - remember that Alex Presley tore the league up last year and still cooled his heels - but Pirate needs. Major league injuries and performance will factor in one way or another. And based on past roster moves, the FO will not be eager to start his clock ticking a minute sooner than they have to, a low revenue given.
But an outfield of Marte, McCutchen and Jose Tabata has to be a fly ball pitcher's dream come true, especially with the Pirates loading up on power arms in the minors, and that configuration isn't too far in the future.
The good news about Marte is the few chinks in his armor are correctable. He's young, and a bit of baseball maturing as provided at the AAA level should be his ticket. How quickly he achieves that maturity will be the key to his future role as a Pirate.