I asked Pirates general manager Neal Huntington the other day if he were human.
“I think so,” Huntington said, giggling.
Now that we have that established …
Huntington must have thrown up his hands in disgust as he watched Starling Marte strike out time after time, chasing slider after slider out of the strike zone. He must have wanted to scream as he watched Marte botch a ball in left field or get thrown out on the bases with some of the worst baseball instincts you will see. He must have gone home after the game on many nights and told his wife, “Enough! I’ve seen enough already! I’m sending Marte back to the minors!”
Those are human reactions, right?
“We all have those emotions, both positive and negative,” Huntington said. “The challenge is not to let those emotions impact your decision-making. Emotional personnel decisions are the worst ones we make.”
Sometimes, a general manager needs to step back, hard and frustrating as that might be. He has to realize it’s not going to be a smooth ride to stardom for any young player, even one with the physical gifts of Marte.
“We all wish the developmental pattern was linear, but it’s not,” Huntington said. “It’s a great game. As soon as you think you have it figured out, it humbles you ...
“You have to be patient. Patience might be the No. 1 requirement for this job. It’s incredibly challenging to have it, but it’s incredibly crucial to making good decisions.”
The Pirates’ patience with Marte is paying off.
Manager Clint Hurdle said he never considered sending Marte back to Class AAA even though Marte often looked clueless at the plate, on the bases and in the field. But Hurdle did show Marte tough love. He publicly scolded Marte and strongly suggested he would have a seat next to him on the bench if he didn’t get his head in the game. It was no hollow threat. Hurdle sat Marte for four consecutive games.
“He has not struggled like this ever, anywhere, and that freaks him out a little bit,” Hurdle said at the time.
Hurdle met with Marte for 20 minutes during a road trip to San Diego in early June.
“I just tried to knock some of the noise out of his head,” Hurdle said. “I’m trying to get him back to being a backyard ballplayer. That Marte strut, we haven’t seen that for a while. The game sometimes takes that from you.”
Marte started in a loss against the Milwaukee Brewers June 8 and went 0 for 3 to run his hitless streak to 23 at-bats and his overall slide to 3 for 39. But he has hit safely in each of the past seven games — five wins — going 15 for 32 (.468) with four doubles, a home run and six RBIs. Marte, who had batted first, fifth, sixth and seventh in the lineup, seems to have found a home in the No. 2 slot between leadoff man Gregory Polanco and No. 3 thumper Andrew McCutchen. The three players combined to hit .433 with 3 doubles, 2 home runs, 13 RBIs and 12 runs scored in the past four games.
Marte is doing a lot of strutting these days.
It was a lot easier for the Pirates to have that patience with Marte because of his contract. The team signed him to a six-year, $31 million deal in the spring with club options for 2020 and 2021. Huntington said he never thought Marte struggled because Marte believed he was set for life and got fat and happy. If the contract had any impact, Huntington said, it was that Marte was trying too hard to justify it.
“He’s very confident, but he’s also very proud. He hates failing,” Huntington said. “He’s a premier talent in this game. He cares about being successful. We believe he has the athleticism and the intelligence and the will to work hard enough to power through the rough times.”
There will be more ahead for Marte. Certainly, there will be some for Polanco, who joined the Pirates from Class AAA Indianapolis a week ago and has hit safely in all six of his games, going 12 for 31 (.387). There might even be a bump or two for McCutchen, hard as that is to believe. He was named the National League’s player of the week Monday and is well on his way to being player of the month for June. He is batting .421 this month with 9 doubles, 7 home runs and 18 RBIs in 14 games.
The thought of Polanco, Marte and McCutchen hitting one-two-three the rest of this season is exciting. The thought that they will be together for years in the outfield is even more intriguing. Polanco is just getting started and is under team control for this season and the next six. Marte could be here through 2021. McCutchen is signed to an almost unbelievable franchise-friendly six-year, $51.5 million contract through 2017 with a club option for 2018.
The Pirates will have a tough decision to make on catcher Russell Martin, who becomes a free agent after this season. They will have hard calls to make about second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who are under team control for two more seasons after this one. All three could leave in short order.
Isn’t it comforting to know that Polanco, Marte and McCutchen should be here for years?
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.