Spring training: Starling in the making
Even the Pirates' brass has a hard time not using scout-speak when it comes to 21-year-old Dominican outfielder Starling Marte. He is shown here working out on the fields at Pirate City Wednesday morning.
The Pirate Parrot gets the attention of Andy LaRoche before an exhibition game this week at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Baseball scouting is never an exact science.
Except when it is.
Show the most cynical of scouts a prospect with all five coveted tools -- one with the ability to excel at hitting for average, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing --and that scout is likely to rave. Passionately. In the form of poetry.
This player, this will be the one.
Then, the scout catches himself. And he remembers all the five-tool talents who ended up working at five-and-dimes.
So it is with Starling Marte, a Class A center fielder in the Pirates' system.
He is built in the mold of Darryl Strawberry, a sleek, athletic 6 feet 2, 179 pounds. He has the speed and grace of an Omar Moreno, the kind seldom seen with that size. He already can cover as much of center field -- maybe even more -- than Andrew McCutchen. And his arm, already the Pirates' best at any level among outfielders ... well, no need to go there.
All that, and he is 21 years old with an adult's approach and childlike passion for the sport.
Games: Pirates vs. New York Yankees, 1:05 p.m., McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Fla. RHP Charlie Morton vs. LHP CC Sabathia. Other pitchers: Brendan Donnelly, Jean Machi, Jeff Karstens, Vinnie Chulk. B-game: Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles, 10 a.m., Pirate City, Bradenton, Fla. RHP Brad Lincoln will start.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, FMNewsTalk 104.7.
Camp roster: 66 players, including 36 pitchers, six catchers, 13 infielders, 11 outfielders.
Injuries: RHP Octavio Dotel (oblique), RHP Joel Hanrahan (elbow).
Opener: 22 days until the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.
"The tools, the love of the game, the way he goes about it ... those are all really exciting. And, defensively, he's an accomplished outfielder right now," general manager Neal Huntington said. "There are a lot of things to like."
"One thing we're always going to temper is expectations. While the tools may be there, there have been a lot of guys with tools and can't-miss labels, and they don't hit. We're excited about the player, the person, the package. But it's a little early to start calling him the next guy."
Early, but not unthinkable, apparently.
Huntington, as his words and actions have shown, is anything but the type to hype a prospect. He is sensitive to any buildup -- "We don't want our players to read their press clippings and think they're set," as he put it -- and he stresses that to his staff.
With Marte, though, the Pirates' baseball people -- yes, including Huntington -- have a hard time holding back the scout inside them ...
Kyle Stark, director of player development: "Anytime the tools are that obvious, sure, you get excited. You can start dreaming about what a guy can be. Defensively, he's already very impressive. Offensively, all the ingredients are there."
Jeff Banister, minor league field coordinator: "He's absolutely exciting. You look at the body type, the running style, the arm, the flair for the dramatic. ... Yeah, if I'm a scout sitting in the stands, this player would excite me every time he took the field."
Gary Green, Marte's manager with low Class A West Virginia last season: "His skill set is extremely good. He's a tremendous runner, a plus-plus runner. He has bat speed, too. The ball jumps off his bat. He has good instincts in the outfield, and he tracks anything. And he has a great awareness of the game, a really bright kid."
Never mind when he gets to Pittsburgh, right?
Sounds like the only remaining issue is where to put that fifth statue.
Well, to fully understand Huntington's cautious position, it is necessary to skip past the glowing assessments or even Marte's fine offensive numbers last season, his first out of his native Dominican Republic: In 57 games, he batted .309 with three home runs, nine doubles, five triples, 35 RBIs and 24 steals.
It is necessary, first, to consider that, even though five-tool talents are rare, those who make it are even rarer.
With this franchise alone, there was Charles Peterson, the two-sport star and 1993 first-round draft pick who never ascended past Class AAA. There was Chad Hermansen, the 1995 top pick who could "walk on water" as per his rookie-ball coach, but could not hit a major league fastball. There was J.J. Davis, too, perhaps the premier specimen of the group. He was the 1997 top pick, and he struck an imposing figure from the moment he stepped on deck but seldom threatened after that.
Banister was working in the Pirates' system through all of them.
"Believe me, it's about more than the tools," he said. "You can get by at the lower levels on the tools alone. What's important is how you put them together."
That brings the other area of caution: Marte has plenty of work ahead, mostly with the bat. Evaluators do not see any negative traits in the swing itself, but they want him to be far more selective than what he showed last season.
"He's had some trouble with breaking balls and controlling his approach at the plate," Green said. "He gets a little anxious at times."
"It's about knowing your strike zone, not the strike zone," Banister said. "You want him to stay aggressive but to lay off that 1-2 slider that's going to bounce at you."
That said ...
"The bat's definitely there," Green said.
"A matter of polishing it off," Banister said.
The defense is a step ahead.
"The first 10 days we had him at West Virginia, I saw him make plays that were tough for big-leaguers to make," Green said. "The jumps that he got on line drives were incredible. They absolutely shocked me. He does need to get better at coming in and going back, but that comes with time."
"This guy can be an outstanding, dynamic outfielder," Banister said. "But he's young. Here's a guy who thinks he can catch everything right now. He's got to learn game situations, when to play it a little safer."
Marte could benefit from staying humble, too, but that would not figure to be a problem.
He has heard and read some of the assessments, and he is aware that Baseball America ranked him the Pirates' No. 6 prospect after he previously had not been on anyone's radar. He also, as Banister indicated, plays the game with a tangible I-can-do-it-all confidence.
At the same time, he is soft-spoken and easygoing, the son of a former meat-store worker in Santo Domingo.
"I always know where I come from," Marte said. "My family used to be poor."
With the past tense, Marte meant that they were poor until Jan. 4, 2007, the day Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, signed him as an international free agent for $85,000.
Gayo had gotten a mixed review on Marte from another of his scouts after one tryout, but he decided to take a look for himself and arranged another.
"It's not just that I liked the way he ran on my stopwatch. It's that the way he ran was beautiful, like the way you think of Bo Jackson or Gale Sayers," Gayo said. "Then, I see him track down fly balls. And throw it. We do that, and I'm ready to sign him right there. Then, he comes in and starts hitting the ball. What else do you want?"
And one other thing ...
"I wasn't nervous," Marte said.
That is no small issue, given the imposing figure Gayo can strike with his booming voice, blunt assessments and, ultimately, the life-changing checkbook he carries.
Gayo pulled out that checkbook on the spot.
"There are things you learn in baseball, and there are things that God gives you," Gayo said.
"My best day," Marte said. "Where I come from, it's very, very big if you sign with a major league team. My friends and family, they threw a surprise party for me. Everybody came, from our whole street."
Marte played for the Pirates' Dominican Summer League for two years, then got his chance in North America last year.
Just before the latter, and just as important to hear Marte tell it, his first taste of the continent came with a stint in the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 2008. It was there that he met Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' top prospect, and the two hit it off immediately. And the dream of reaching the majors, still distant while in the Dominican, took on reality.
"It was good to get along with someone like Pedro," Marte said. "I felt like I was a member of the Pirates."
No one in the Pirates' system hears -- or deserves -- more raves than Alvarez. But count him, too, among those impressed by Marte.
"Really good kid and ... man, he has that body for baseball," Alvarez said. "Looks like someone who can do it all."
Marte will open this season a step up, with high Class A Bradenton, and his stated goals are set no higher than that.
"I feel great when I hear all those nice things, but I don't listen to that," Marte said. "I just want to do my work and make it to the big leagues. I hope God gives me another year like last year."
Sounds like exactly how Huntington and his staff would script it.
First Published March 14, 2010 12:00 am