Thursday, July 19, 2012

Starling Marte

Starling Marte was signed by Pirates' Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo and Dominican scouting supervisor Josue Herrera in 2006. Hailing from the capital city of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, he wasn't considered a top talent at the time, but rather a raw but toolsy prospect. He signed with Pittsburgh for $85,000. That deal's looking kinda sweet now.

He started out in the Dominican Summer League in 2007, and didn't look so hot at the dish. But he grew a little the following year, hitting .296 and convincing the Pirates it was time to ship him stateside.

They kept him in extended spring training to open 2009 to acclimate him to El Norte. He got a brief assignment to the GCL Pirates when their season opened before being sent to Class A West Virginia, where he hit .312. The Pirates promoted him to High A Lynchburg at the end of the year to bolster the Hillcats' playoff run, but the 20 year old sprained his ankle after just two at-bats.

The new High A club, Bradenton, was where Marte started in 2010. He was the Marauders' CF, and tore up the league for the first month before coming back to earth. He was playing with a bum hand that required hamate surgery, though he returned to action in August and got about a half season of work in.

Marte hit .315, but with no homers. His walk-to-K ration was 1:5, so clearly some work on discipline was required. His OF play was a roller coaster - he would make the brilliant play, then misread a routine fly. All in all, the usual travails of a guy in Class A ball.

Altoona's 2011 season was Marte's coming out party. He had a slash of .332/.370/.500 (his BA led the Eastern League) and finally showed some power with 38 doubles, eight triples and 12 HRs. His technique in the pasture slowly improved, and there was never any doubt about his arm - he had 18 assists.

As we said, it was a breakout season. Marte was selected as a member of the World Team for the 2011 Futures Game and named the Eastern League Rookie of the Year. He was also picked as an EL Mid & Post Season All-Star, a Baseball America Double-A All-Star, a Topps Double-A All-Star, and a All-Star. Marte was added to the Pirates 40-man roster.

This season, it was off to Indy to polish up his game after a great camp (13-for-25 with 3 HR). His slash there is .285/.346/.499 with 11 HR and 58 RBI. He has the same problem with plate discipline; his walk-to-whiff ratio is 26:83 with 395 PA, and that's not ideal. But nobody is perfect, and the clamor for his arrival has been deafening, especially since Jose Tabata's ticket to Indianapolis was punched.

No surprise about the drumbeat. He’s got plus/plus speed and arm, can play the value position of CF, hits for average and is starting to show some power - he has grown from a string bean to a 6'2", 180 pound man - and that's about all the tools a guy can fit into his tool kit. Marte is projected to be a .285 hitter with the potential for 15 HR and 25 stolen bases. Not a bad package; sounds like a young Cutch.

And the media has anointed him as the Bucs' top position player. His pre-season rankings: Season Preview: #40; Baseball Prospectus: #56; Baseball America: #73 and Sports: #87.

But he's not a total package yet. His strikeout rate isn't terrible, at about 20% over his career, but he could stand to tighten up his swing zone and increase his walk rate, a pretty miserable 5%. He's drawn just 99 walks in his minor league career, almost as many times as he's been beaned, 69 (hopefully he'll cut down taking one for the team while he's working on habits to break).

Marte, oddly, has started in center field for the majority of his time in the organization, odd since a guy named Cutch has filled that spot fairly well for the past couple or three seasons. He's only played 51 games in right and 16 in left, and while he may have the ability to bump McCutch, don't hold your breathe waiting on it. Marte will have a learning curve in one of the corners; his speed says left; his arm says right. Nice decision to have to make.

How well he'll play the field is another question. His routes have improved, but he's not an intuitive fielder and may, like McCutch, have a steep learning curve despite being gifted physically. And don't discount the sheer physical skills; many scouts say it's only a matter of time until he starts in CF.

The only other quibble is his steal rate; it's at about 72% career-wise and just 61% (19-31) at Indy. The Pirates don't seemed blessed with many instinctive base stealers in their system and sure as heck haven't figured out how to train any.

So why isn't he up? Well, the Pirates kinda suggest that they want him to fix up that eye before MLB sliders eat him up, and get a little more work as a corner OF. Others, leaning a bit more toward conspiracy as his name has been mentioned in trade rumors, think the Bucs are leaving him at Indy to feast on minor league pitching rather than devalue him with the inevitable learning process of MLB hitting. It's also possible that a deal not involving him could open up an everyday rather than platoon role for him on the big club, and they're waiting on that scenario.

This we do know: with JT at Indy, the Pirates need a right-handed outfielder. And it sure looks like Marte's time is due - there's a need, he seems to be ready, and it's well past the time of year where his clock would start prematurely. Tick, tick, tick...

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