Marte trying to become leadoff hitter Pirates think he can be

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Starling Marte will lead off for the gold team today in the intrasquad scrimmage.

Manager Clint Hurdle will test several lineups in spring training and over the season, but he often will write Marte's name at the top.

Before Marte can morph into the leadoff hitter his speed suggests he is capable of being, he has work to do at the plate, specifically improving his discipline. Hurdle believes Marte can adjust.

"I think he showed the ability, the offensive ability, even though he hit in the third spot this winter," Hurdle said. "It's definitely something that we're going to give him an opportunity to run with and see where he can take it."

In 182 plate appearances in 47 games last season, Marte had only a .300 on-base percentage and struck out 50 times with eight walks.

While playing for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, Marte improved his on-base percentage to .381 and struck out 23 times with 13 walks in 112 at-bats.

"I just kept on working on what I worked on here when I left," Marte said in Spanish as Juan Rodriguez, the Florida operations coordinator for the Pirates, translated. "The coaches over there told me a couple adjustments that I needed to do and that helped me out a lot."

Pitchers in the Latin American winter leagues generally throw more breaking balls, exposing Marte to more quality off-speed pitches.

"There were a lot of different situations in which he showed much improved discipline, where they were trying to go for a strike down and away, whether he fouled off, took it or swung at it," Hurdle said.

Marte's on-base percentage issues mirror those of the whole team.

The Pirates' .304 on-base percentage ranked 27th in the majors last season, and their leadoff hitters had a cumulative .291 OBP. That was the lowest mark of any spot in the order except for that of the pitcher.

"We are addressing it factually," Hurdle said. "Just show them the numbers. How are the numbers created? Where were the inconsistencies? What can we do better?"

Marte did better in the Dominican. In addition to his higher on-base percentage, he hit .304 and stole eight bases in nine attempts.

"I think it was a great learning experience," Hurdle said. "I think he was able to show us some of the things we anticipated him being able to do well. I think he showed us some areas that he's got to continue to improve on."

After ripping through the minors, he showed flashes of ability in the majors after the Pirates called him up in July. He hit .257 with five home runs and stole 12 bases.

"I need to focus on playing hard and keep doing what I've been doing," Marte said. "Things are just going to get easier, and I just got to keep learning the game."

Marte will enter the season as the presumptive starter in left field, but said he knows that could change.

"I can't get comfortable because there's other people fighting for that position," he said. "I just need to do what I need to do."

A first for Burnett

A.J. Burnett downplayed the importance of earning his first opening-day start, but admitted he viewed it as special.

"If I'm going to tell you that I'm going to treat it like a normal start in July, I'd be lying to you," he said. "It's going to be a packed house, it's going to be a crazy atmosphere, it's going to be great."

Burnett pitched 2021/3 innings last season despite missing a few starts early on because of a fractured orbital bone. That spring training injury kept him from starting opening day.

He finished with a 3.51 ERA and 180 strikeouts.

"I'm looking forward to it, man," he said of opening day. "It's exciting. No better place to do it than in Pittsburgh. They've been so supportive."

Early auditions

Jeff Locke will start Saturday' against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first Grapefruit League game, Hurdle said.

Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris, Mike Zagurski and Duke Welker also will pitch.

James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon are among those scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.

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Bill Brink: and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 22, 2013 5:00 AM


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