The biggest buzz out of Bradenton through the first week of spring training games is that Starling Marte, who’s generally been ranked somewhere in the 50-100 portion of people’s Top 100 prospects lists, is absolutely on fire. He’s played in five games, he’s 8-for-11 and he’s got a double and a homer, he stole a base, and he hasn’t struck out yet (update as I finish writing this: he just homered again). Obviously we Pirate fans are a bit gunshy when it comes to prospects since Andrew McCutchen is pretty much the only prospect the team has had in the last two decades to actually pan out, and obviously early spring training results mean very, very little, but it’s exciting to see a player like Marte come out and just rake in his first spring training.
That’s because Marte falls into the “very talented, flawed, but very very raw” grouping of prospects. He had an incredible year at Double-A last year — he hit .322/.370/.500 with 38 doubles, 9 triples, and 12 homers after hitting exactly five homers in his first two partial seasons of baseball in the States — which one huge glaring problem, his 100 strikeouts and 22 walks in 579 plate appearances. Because Marte has only been playing in America since 2009 and because 2011 was really his first full season of baseball at a significant level (he started late in 2009, then got hurt in 2010) and becase at 22 he was age-appropriate for Double-A, that’s the sort of thing that people have a certain willingness to overlook. If it persists, it’ll be a huge hurdle for him, but for now it’s more something to monitor and not something to freak out about.
That said, his plate patience is obviously something he needs to work on before he comes to the big leagues and even if he hits .900 with a homer every other at-bat in spring training, he should probably start the year in Triple-A to prove he can do it against real competition in game situations over an extended period of time. That’s not a Pirates being cheap and holding him back from arbitration thing, it’s something that needs to happen for him at this point in his career kind of thing.
I vacillate on my own personal opinion of Marte quite a bit. Some days, I think that his tools are incredible and that he could really blossom into a big league star. Other days, I think that he’ll never overcome his strikeout problem and he’ll end up as a Carlos Gomez clone. That’s part of the reason I think he needs time in Triple-A; there’s not really a good way to answer these questions about him until he climbs up the ladder and we see how he evolves as a player. The other reason that he needs to play in Triple-A to start the year is that the Pirates do need to give Alex Presley a chance to play every day.
In light of the McCutchen extension and the following talk about Neil Walker, I started thinking a bit about how the Pirates build a winning team around McCutchen from where they are at this point. If we just kind of gloss over the fact that the pitching the team will be relying on a couple years down the road is exceptionally young and unproven and not even close to a sure thing at this point, there are still quite a few holes that the Pirates would need to fill to flesh the lineup out. They don’t have anything that resembles a Major League shortstop in the minors at this point. They don’t have any backup plan for Pedro Alvarez. They don’t have a good first base prospect and they don’t have a third base prospect in the event that Alvarez succeeds but moves across the diamond. They do have Walker, in all of his solid-but-unspectacular glory. If necessary, he could move back to third base and maybe hold his own there (league average offense at the position is way, way down of late). Similarly, the Bucs have guys like Josh Harrison and Chase dArnaud/Jordy Mercer/Brock Hold and Matt Curry/Matt Hague that might make acceptable big bench players and the Bucs could maybe even get away with one or two of them in the starting lineup and still have a decent team, but if the Pirates infield is, corner to corner, Harrison/Mercer/Walker/Alvarez, there’s a pretty good chance that lineup will struggle to score runs.
What the Pirates do have, though, is young outfielders. They have McCutchen and Tabata. They have Marte and Robbie Grossman as good prospects in the upper minors. They have Josh Bell in the low minors. They have Presley, who looks like he could be a useful big league player. They have Gorkys Hernandez, who’s very strong defensively and made some positive progress at the plate last year. Not all of these guys will pan out, of course, but even so there’s a pretty good chance the Pirates will have a surplus of outfielders and that outfield is going to be the strength that they can deal from to help fill out the infield in the coming years. The time is now, though, to give Presley his chance to play every day at the big league level and see if his minor league success can translate into something useful on a day-to-day basis at the big leagues. Will he have a Neil Walker transformation or will his high average deflate and turn him into a fourth outfielder at best?
There’s just not really a pressing reason to rush Marte, no matter what he does this spring. There are questions about him that need answered at Triple-A and there are questions about Presley that can only be answered in Pittsburgh at this point. What I really want to see is for the Pirates to have a “good problem.” I want to see Alex Presley coming in hot out of the box in April, and Marte ripping the ball all over the ballpark in Indy, and Tabata evolving into a legitimate big league leadoff man. I want the Pirates to have so many legitimate big league outfielders that they can’t help but trade one of them. These sorts of things never work out for the Pirates, though (in this case, I’m really not sold on Presley and I’m fairly skeptical about Tabata), and so I guess I’ll just hope that Marte’s incredble start this spring for a productive outfield for the majority of the season in 2012 and leave it at that.