Starling Marte has been a five-win player for the Pirates this year.
Starling Marte has been a four-win player for the Pirates this year.
Okay, so the reason you're reading this is because Marte had a brutal, game-losing error in the ninth inning of Tuesday's Pirates/Cardinals game. Not only did it allow the Cardinals to tie the game, but it forced the Pirates to grind through their bullpen in the beginning of a series against a good offensive team. It was a 14-inning loss, and extra-innings games have been the metaphorical castor oil for the Pirates in each of the last two seasons. They went 19-43 after a 19-inning game in 2011, and they went 13-29 after a 19-inning game last year. Yarrr.
But those are factoids, not trends. If you really think the Curse of Extra Innings means something, you don't need to watch the rest of the season. Horoscopes will tell you how it all turns out. And we come here today not to bury Starling Marte, but to praise him. The Pirates are good; the Pirates are in first place; Marte has been one of the better surprises of the season. Those are all related.
No matter how this season turns out for the Pirates, there will be all sorts of postmortems on how they turned the franchise around. They took gambles on undervalued pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, they turned Nate McLouth into more viable major leaguers than they received in the 10 deadline deals before that trade. They spent a little money on an underrated catcher, and they finally had some first-round picks work out at the same time. There's no ah-ha! moment with the roster of the 2013 Pirates.
There are a lot of ways to say, "The 2003 Pirates would have screwed that up," though. Gerrit Cole would have been Bubba Starling, and A.J. Burnett would have been Matt Morris. Russell Martin would have been Jason Kendall, but the Kendall who hung around Kansas City for a few years. This season hasn't necessarily been about the Pirates' good fortune so much as it's been the absence of bad fortune. Top-10 picks should provide value. The occasional free-agent excursions should work out every few years. Deadline deals for rebuilding teams should pan out every so often. Now it's all happening at once. And that's just swell.
But nothing makes me think about the old Pirates more than Starling Marte. What follows is complete supposition, and there's nothing to quantify it, so feel free to ignore it. But the old Pirates would have screwed Starling Marte into the ground. I have no idea how. Swing more, swing less, stop swinging, hit for power, focus on hitting the ball on the ground to use your speed, have you thought about bunting more?, here's how you hit behind the runner with fewer than two outs, don't hit for power, up from Indianapolis, down to Indianapolis, up from Indianapolis, down to Indianapolis …
Whatever they would have told him, it would have messed him up. Because as a reminder, Marte was a blank prospect canvas:
He was tools and performance, but the performance was only impressive because the tools hinted at more. That's a high-risk prospect, though. Look at the strikeout-to-walk ratio. The averages were pretty, but the approach was dreadful. He was Jeff Francoeur, except Marte got to face weaker competition in the minors. And his debut with the Pirates went about as expected. Some ups, some downs, and some hacking that limited the kind of ceiling his tools could build.
He struggled at times last year, but the Pirates never budged. They pencilled him in to start the season, and never considered doing anything different.
The old Pirates would have ... I don't know, traded him for Michael Young or something. Or traded for Young to play in left, blocking Marte. Or even better, put the left field spot up for grabs in a spring-training battle with the modern-day Tike Redman. After 30 sub-par Grapefruit League at-bats, the Pirates would have done the wrong thing. Six years later, he would have emerged from the organizational swamp and turned into Jose Bautista.
Marte is having a great season, but don't expect him to do so consistently. Not until he learns his balls from strikes. Still, he's one of the more exciting young players in the league, and he's a big reason for the Pirates' success in 2013. I can't tell you how, and I can't tell you why, but I just feel it in my bones that he's the one the Pirates from '93 through '10 would have screwed into the ground. He did make an unfortunate error on Tuesday. But that just means it's a better time to celebrate that he exists on the Pirates at all.