Of all of the prospects that have come through the Pirates’ system in the 7+ years that I’ve been writing WHYGAVS, there hasn’t been anyone quite like Starling Marte. To begin with, he’s the first home grown international prospect to make his big league debut since Jose Castillo (at least I’m pretty sure he is; I know Dejan Kovacevic said this at one point or another but I can’t find it now). Castillo debuted in 2004, the year before WHYGAVS started. He’s also been fun to watch develop. He didn’t play in the US until he was 20 years old. When he was 21, he broke his hamate bone and didn’t hit a home run other than a couple in a rehab stint in the GCL. He hit 12 home runs in Double-A last year and he’s already got 12 in Triple-A this year and now he’s 23 and playing for the Pirates. Any time a player moves through a system like that, making progress at each level and really developing, he’s a guy you take notice of, someone you watch closely. It’s always rewarding for fans when a player like Marte reaches the big leagues.
So who is Starling Marte? Before we even get to the player, we can deal with the story. Even without many details, you can tell that this is the sort of story that will be told in Sports Illustrated if Marte becomes a star. Marte was one of Rene Gayo’s first signings for the Pirates in 2006, but he was already 17 years old at the time. That means that he went unsigned the year before, as a 16-year old. Because of his late signing date, he was slow to come to the US. He played in the Dominican Summer League as an 18-year old in 2007, and struggled. In 2008, he had a breakout in the DOSL (.296/.367/.455 with 10 doubles and nine homers in 65 games), but he was 19. That means he was a year older than most high school draftees and pretty old to still be playing outside of the US system. Some of Gayo’s more recent signings, Alen Hanson and Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna, are all playing in West Virginia at the age of 19.
It became immediately apparent, though, that the Pirates thought highly of Marte. After his breakout season in the DOSL, he was mentioned specifically by Dejan Kovacevic in Part 2 of his series on the Pirates’ efforts to rebuild their Latin American scouting efforts. At the end of that series, Kovacevic gave a list of the five prospects that Gayo liked the best; Marte topped the list even though he had just turned 20 and was yet to play at all in America. I remember Charlie Wilmoth (or maybe it was Wilbur Miller) noting at Bucs Dugout at the time that Gayo must really like Marte to put him that high on the list despite a relative lack of experience for his age.
Since then, Marte’s been on a whirlwind through the system. Instead of playing in the GCL or New York Penn League in 2009, Marte hopped straight to West Virginia at mid-season and was impressive. He hit .312/.377/.439 in 54 games, with nine doubles, five triples, and three homers. That got him a promotion to Bradenton to start 2010, where he played well, but missed time due to the previously noted hamate injury. He finished 2010 with a .315/.386/.432 line with 16 doubles, five triples, and no homers in 60 games. When 2011 started, Marte was 22 and hadn’t played more than 68 games in a season in America. The Pirates still sent him to Altoona, and he finally had a true breakout: .332/.370/.500 with an incredible 58 extra base hits (38 doubles, eight triples, 12 homers) over 129 games. You know the rest from here; he came to spring training this February, he destroyed the ball before his demotion, he went to Triple-A and had a bit of a slow start, and since June he’s been mostly on fire. In 98 Triple-A games, he’s got 21 doubles and 13 triples and 12 homers. Despite not playing a game in America before his 20th birthday, he’s with the Pirates before his 24th.
The problem is that his late start and quick ascendance makes him pretty difficult to evaluate entirely. We know about the athleticism, we know about the speed, we know how his power is developing, and all of those things make him an incredibly promising prospect. But we also know that he’s struck out 190 times in 999 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A and we know that he only drew 22 walks in 572 plate appearances last year and 28 in 427 this year. It’s fair to expect plate patience to develop late for a player like Marte, but it’s not something you can take for granted. It’s entirely possible that he’ll spend a bunch of time struggling with big league pitching and strike out a ton and put up Pedro Alvarez batting averages without Pedro’s raw power for the forseeable future. It’s also possible that he’ll continue to not miss a beat and just keep killing the ball, because that’s what he’s done with every promotion up to this point.
That leads us to our big question: what can the Pirates’ expect from Starling Marte? He’s being called up to play in the heat of a pennant race. He plays a position that the Pirates certainly need help at. The thought of Marte covering as much of PNC Park’s left field as the grass does, of him lasering throws in from right field, of him blasting extra base hits into the gaps and flying around the bases, of him batting .300 with a .340 OBP and setting the table for Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, all of these things are beyond tantalizing. It’s easy to see what Marte’s done in the minors and plug that into the Pirates and tell yourself that he’s what could put the Pirates on another level in 2012. And he could; the ability, the talent, the potential is all there. That’s not all guaranteed, though; he could hit .220/.250/.310 or worse, and that’d be worse than Alex Presley has been lately. There’s a chance that right now he offers the Pirates precious little more than Gorkys Hernandez and really, there’s just no way to find out other than putting Marte into the lineup and seeing what he does with big league pitching.
His potential, though, and the upgrade that his potential represents are both tangible. The Pirates are really in a pennant race, and even if 2012 isn’t the year for the Pirates to go all-in, it’s time to push some chips into the pot. If Marte comes up and doesn’t miss a beat, there’s no one else on the team or on the trade market that can do for the Pirates what he can do. I don’t really know what Marte will do for the Pirates, but I know it’s time to find out.