It only takes about ten minutes of watching Starling Marte to understand why being a baseball scout is such a difficult job. Why even the best scouts pile up tons of misses for every diamond in the rough that they unearth. I am not a scout by any means, but since moving North Carolina 5 1/2 years ago I've watched plenty of minor league baseball. Most of that baseball has been Triple-A baseball and the reality of Triple-A baseball is that it's mostly a vast wasteland of Quadruple-A replacement-level talent, stowed away in case of big league emergency.
Still, watching the Durham Bulls regularly means that I've seen plenty of Tampa Bay's prospects come through, and when talented guys play in Triple-A, their talent tends to kind of pop off of the field. Maybe it's just confirmation bias (you know who the prospects are by the time they come to Triple-A), but in the vast Triple-A wasteland it's immediately apparent when Andrew McCutchen flicks his wrists through the zone and sends a fly ball screaming to the warning track or when David Price's slider keeps guys flailing, even if his control is a bit off. You can't help but notice Matt Wieters tower over everyone in the batter's box and understand that he's built differently than other catchers and that this is what the scouts rave about.
And so by the same token, you can't miss Starling Marte on the baseball field when he's in front of you. When I watched him last spring, he was playing so shallow in center field that he might as well have been playing rover in slow pitch softball. On a couple of occasions I'd see a hitter rip a flyball towards deep center or left center, remember where Marte was playing, and think, "There's no way he's getting there." He'd be practically there waiting for the ball before I could even turn my head to watch the play. You notice it on TV, too. Remember the time Paul Goldschmidt thought he could stretch a single into a double with Marte in left field? Oops. At the plate, he can blister the ball. He homered on the first big league pitch that he saw and he tripled in three straight games. When he's on, he's magnetic. You can't not see him on the field or on your TV screen.
And of course therein lies the caveat: he's not always on. He gets lost at the plate and can strike out a ton. When he's struggling at the plate, he presses in the field and weird things happen. He's already 24, which is not terribly young for a raw prospect. We can talk about his lack of time in the US or his relative inexperience due to not playing a full minor league season until the age of 22, but that doesn't change the fact that he's already 24 and that some of the stuff that needs to happen for him Marte to become star simply might not happen. Marte could literally be anything at this point in his career: he could turn into Michael Bourn or Carlos Gomez or Jacoby Ellsbury or Drew Stubbs or Alfonso Soriano or Andrew McCutchen. All I feel like I know for sure is that his speed and defense will make him a big league regular. After that? Who knows.
This is frustrating, because there's nothing that could help the Pirates more in 2013 than Starling Marte having a breakout year as a hitter. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, who is a known superstar-level asset, they have Neil Wakler, who can be counted on to be a solid contributor at the plate if healthy, and they have Pedro Alvarez, who will probably fall somewhere in between with some danger of cratering. Marte will, at the very least, contribute real value to the team defensively, but the Pirates need more than that. They need another dynamic hitter that can help drive the Pirates' lineup to be something other than below average. They need Winter Ball Starling Marte, who drew 13 walks and only struck out 23 times in 120+ plate appearances to go with all of his extra base hits (four doubles, four triples, two homers). Starling Marte could be that hitter for the Pirates, but there's absolutely no way to be sure about it right now.
I wrote about Travis Snider and whether or not I thought he was a breakout candidate last week. About halfway through that post I thought to myself, "This is silly. Starling Marte is way more important to the Pirates." His approach at the plate is one of the few things to keep an eye on in spring training that might be important for the coming season. Really, I think it's this simple: it's hard to imagine the Pirates being a good team in 2013 or 2014 without Marte becoming a legitimate top or middle of the order hitter and it's not a slam dunk that he will be.
Remember when I said that this season was making me awfully nervous? This kind of thing is exactly why.