Starling Marte is out; what's next for the Pirates?
April 20, 2017 11:43 PM
Starling Marte won't be back in the Pirates lineup until July.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ST. LOUIS — Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang, two of the Pirates’ most valuable players last season, are twiddling their thumbs on Major League Baseball’s restricted list, an unpaid purgatory for players paying penance for off-field transgressions who are not permitted to play.
The timetable for Marte’s return is known — 78 more games. Kang’s is not.
Regardless of how the first-time drug offense will impact Marte’s reputation, the implications it carries for the Pirates are widespread and significant in both the near and distant future.
In the short-term, until July 18, the Pirates intend to backfill internally. Though Marte’s absence frees nearly $2.5 million from the payroll, general manager Neal Huntington said there’s “a limited free-agent pool” for outfielders, and few considered upgrades over internal options.
The Pirates’ roster was constructed this season with the expectation Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco would remain regulars. It’s one reason the Pirates went without a proven fourth outfielder rather than potential overpay for free agents Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez.
The open spot in right field belongs to no one in particular. Manager Clint Hurdle said super-utility player Adam Frazier is an option, as are John Jaso and the recently promoted Jose Osuna. Josh Harrison could see time out there, too. Even first baseman Josh Bell, a natural outfielder, could be a candidate, Hurdle said, albeit one “on the back side of the conversation.”
“We don’t need nine of them,” Hurdle said. “We’re already talking about five.”
The Pirates bench, an undisputed strength last year, has been decimated. Hitters are 5 or 40 (.118) coming off the bench. Rather than have David Freese, Frazier and Jaso available as pinch-hitters, as they were with Kang and Marte active, two of three are expected to start most days.
The heir apparent in the outfield, top prospect Austin Meadows, could be a ready for a promotion later this season, but through Wednesday he had a .156 average and .235 on-base percentage in 12 games for Class AAA Indianapolis. So Osuna was the stopgap substitute.
“We’re encouraged by where Austin Meadows will be at some point over the course of the summer,” Huntington said. “He’s not ready right now. But we’re thrilled by where he can go.”
If Polanco, who’s had shoulder and groin injuries already this season, is unable to stay healthy and endure the rigors of left field, he may return to right field. There’s typically more room to cover in left, particularly at PNC Park. The way Hurdle said it, “Analytically, skill-wise, on paper I believe our best healthy left fielder is Polanco.” There are two schools of thought here, he said.
“No. 1, in left field, just go get the ball,” he said. “You can think, well, maybe that's better for him because he's free and easy to run. Well, then there’s less volume to carry in right field. However, there’s more nooks and crannies, and different movement that comes with that.”
Having already irked McCutchen by moving him to right field this offseason, making way for Marte to steer the ship from center field, the Pirates now shift McCutchen back. He made a few fine catches in center field at Busch Stadium earlier this week and defiantly re-staked his claim as the outfield captain, pointing to center field and shouting, “This is my spot!” again and again.
“I'm just doing my job,” McCutchen clarified Tuesday. “Center field is where I need to play. It's where I’m going to be at [with Marte gone]. If I need to show a couple people that, you know, I can do what I need to out there, I’m going to do it.”
The long-term implications of Marte’s suspension are interwoven with McCutchen’s desires and, ultimately, his destination.
Marte is ineligible for the postseason. If the Pirates are in contention when Marte returns, should they return to their opening-day outfield alignment, only to switch back to the current formation, with McCutchen in center, in October? Or should they stick with McCutchen in center, avoid bruising his ego again and count on the old outfield set-up?
It may not matter, either way. The largest impact of Marte’s suspension is this: The date he is scheduled to be reinstated, July 18, is two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline. By then, if the shorthanded Pirates scuffle, the fates of McCutchen and closer Tony Watson, the team’s most likely trade candidates, could already be sealed. Much depends on the next 78 games, on whether the Pirates win without the sweet-swinging, speedy, two-time Gold Glover Marte.
“If we’re able to do what we believe we can do and we’re able to get through these 80 games and finish with a postseason run,” Huntington said, “we’ll be in a good spot with or without [Marte].”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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